Diana Franco has lived in Little Village all her life.

She grew up down the street from the New Life Centers of Chicagoland, a service organization on Chicago’s West Side, where she participated in its after-school and sports programs.

Diana Franco stands outside of the Pan de Vida food pantry

Diana Franco

Today, she’s the one giving back to her neighbors as one of the coordinators for New Life’s Pan de Vida food pantry. The pantry, operating out of a renovated former grocery store building on South Lawndale Avenue, opened in June as the result of a Food Depository grant.

“It feels amazing that the community can come in here and it’s the same thing,” she said. “It’s a grocery store, but it’s for free.”

Pan de Vida grew out of New Life’s efforts to feed its neighbors amid the COVID-19 crisis. Since the early months of the pandemic until the permanent site opened, New Life served hundreds of people through its massive, weekly drive-through and walk-up distributions. This work was done in partnership with the Food Depository.

The interior of the Pan de Vida food pantry

The Pan de Vida food pantry serves the Little Village and Lawndale communities.

After losing her job due to the pandemic, Franco – who had volunteered for New Life’s other programs before – began helping out at the distributions. This led to a job, which she said feels like the perfect fit.

“I wanted to continue to help out the community and for them to see a familiar face,” she said. “I am from the neighborhood, [I wanted guests to know] I’m here to help you out – even if it’s just preparing a box or having a conversation.”

“It brought me life to do that,” Franco continued. “And to this day, coming to work doesn’t feel like work.”

Pan de Vida is the third of four food pantries set to open as a result of the Food Depository’s equity grants. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food Depository has provided over $14 million to partners across our network, were designed to strengthen the emergency food system in Black and Brown communities that have long faced greater risk of food insecurity. This includes the opening of new food pantries as well as transforming existing ones to better serve more people.

“Communities of color have long been disproportionately affected by hunger, and it only worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic” said Amy Laboy, vice president of programs and community partnerships. “The Food Depository is dedicated to making Cook County a place where everyone has equitable access to nutritious food.”

The site is open five days a week and currently serves 150 to 200 households per day with a variety of fresh groceries. Guests like Maria, a Little Village resident who was picking up food for her kids and grandkids during a recent distribution, are grateful for the space. Maria, 62, said she’s unable to work due to health issues, so she’s able to pick up needed items like eggs and produce.

Maria, a visitor of the Pan de Vida food pantry.

Maria, a visitor of the Pan de Vida food pantry.

“It has been helpful a lot,” Maria said.

Franco said seeing the pantry finally up and running has been a dream come true for Little Village – even if it wasn’t something many thought was possible before it became a reality.

“They may not have known it was a dream to them, but to us it was a dream for them,” she said.