On a recent Friday morning at the Niles Township Food Pantry, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blasted over the speaker as clients shopped for food. Some bounced to the music as they picked up cereal, butternut squash, potatoes, milk and many other goods.
Here, the motto of the pantry is “serving food with dignity.”
In the last three years, the pantry – one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s more than 700 partner agencies and programs in Cook County – has transformed its operations to better meet the needs of its clients.
“I’ve tried to make the experience more fulfilling all around, not only for our clients, but for our volunteers and donors,” said Tony Araque, manager of the Niles Township Food Pantry.
Araque has worked at the Niles Township Food Pantry for 10 years, starting as a volunteer in high school before becoming a paid employee and, eventually, taking over as manager.
Araque has overseen considerable changes at the pantry, including moving to a larger building and transitioning to a client-choice model.
“When I started as manager three years ago, things were all about efficiency and not always about the client,” Araque said. “When I took over, (township) officials let me mold the pantry to better fit the clients.”
As a result of these changes, the pantry is open more hours and guests leave with more food. The pantry also now accepts food from the Food Depository’s food rescue program, which gathers and distributes food from retailers and events. Food rescue reduces food waste while providing sustenance for people in need.
Nikki Ellis is a teacher in the Niles North High School who works with 18-to-22-year-old students with intellectual disabilities in their post-high school transition. For the past five years, Ellis has brought her students to volunteer at the Niles Township Food Pantry.
“To see the transition, from an all-open pantry to one with a shopping area, has been incredible,” Ellis said. “It truly is more empowering for the people who visit the pantry.”
The pantry has also helped Ellis’s students develop new skills and confidence, she said.
“Tony has been so open to welcoming our students,” Ellis said. “This pantry gives our students a sense of community, independence and skills they need to grow.”