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Baby spinach leaves with water droplets.
Hunger Beat

North Austin pantry expands, furthering its reach to West and Northwest side neighbors

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Noemi Guzman, 60, had just retired, and was living with her oldest son, who was working in construction. Like many construction workers, he lost his job during the pandemic.

With neither of them working and bills still arriving, Guzman turned to Grace and Peace pantry in North Austin, which she had heard about through a friend.

“They gave me sufficient food for me and my son to survive during the pandemic,” she said. At the time, Guzman, along with a group of volunteers in her neighborhood, were helping to run a soup kitchen for neighbors who were unhoused in partnership with their church.

“This was my passion,” she said. “But I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to continue. I thought I might have to stop this volunteer work to get a job.”

A man puts food into a cart

Pantry guest Bryan Desera, 40, picks out fresh produce to take home.

The food that she got from Grace and Peace every week ensured that she and her son were able to get through the pandemic without her having to come out of retirement. “I was able to keep feeding people at the soup kitchen because I had enough food for myself and my son. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them (Grace and Peace).”

Since then, Guzman has attended pantry distributions at Grace and Peace often.

“I am so grateful for the food I have received from this pantry. It’s been so helpful to me. I’ve eaten great from here – meat, rice, eggs, milk, everything. It’s been a blessing.”

A woman looks at the camera.

Pantry Coordinator, Carmen Rodriguez, fills bins with household items for guests.

Since the pandemic, Grace and Peace pantry has been a vital resource in the North Austin and Hermosa communities for many people, like Noemi. One of the pantry’s coordinators, Carmen Rodriguez, has seen hundreds of people walk through the door since she started volunteering at the pantry in 2019.

“Sometimes people come in here and this overwhelms them,” said Rodriguez, gesturing to the many rows of produce and non-perishable foods that make up the pantry. “They come for just your basic milk and bread, and when they come in here and see the abundance of food, I see the impact it has on them, the gratitude on their faces.”

Racks and refrigerators filled with food.

The Grace and Peace pantry opened its new space to the public in March.

Due to high demand, in March of 2024, Grace and Peace expanded their pantry in partnership with the Food Depository. They added on to their building to create a larger, dedicated space for the pantry, which allowed them to serve more neighbors and expand their distribution dates.

The pantry now hosts distributions three days a week, serving about 600 people weekly, compared to the 400 people they served during the height of the pandemic.

“Now with the bigger space we can accommodate more, which means that we can serve more,” Rodriguez said.

People wait outside in line.

Pantry guests wait in line for the pantry to open for the day.

The influx of people they saw when they opened the expanded pantry was instant. “It’s been something that we didn’t expect. We thought that what we had was big, but it’s just getting bigger and bigger. The need for food in Chicago is still very much there, just as much or even more than it was in the pandemic, and we want to do as much as we can to relieve that.”

The rise in attendance that Grace and Peace pantry has seen in recent months reflects the rising needs that our partner sites across Chicago and Cook County are also seeing. In the first three months of 2024, our network partners served 26 percent more guests than the same period last year.

A woman and two children walk with a shopping cart.

Ruth Mendez and her daughters shop for food at Grace and Peace pantry.

Ruth Mendez, 34, has been attending pantry distributions at Grace and Peace for the past few months. Mendez arrived in Chicago from Venezuela with her family less than a year ago. Her husband works in construction, and she stays home to care for their two young daughters, who are 5 years old and 6 months old.

“The food I get here helps me so much because my family is living off one income,” said Mendez. “Although my husband works full-time, his salary isn’t enough to sustain the four of us. The pantry helps me with not only food, but also supplies for the baby and for my older daughter. I can get a lot of things here that are necessities. It is so helpful to me.”

A woman looks at the camera.

Pastor Elsie Rodriguez takes time to greet the people in line before the pantry opens for the day.

Pastor and pantry coordinator, Elsie Rodriguez, says that over the years, she has seen people from all walks of life come to the pantry. “Families, single people, old, young, disabled, Black, white, Latino, Asian, you name it – there’s no one type of person that comes to this pantry,” she said.

“You never know anybody’s circumstances. We’re here to serve all people, no matter where they come from or what their situation is.”

A woman and a man point to an item on a shelf.

A volunteer helps a pantry guest choose different foods to take home.

“It’s an honor to come here and serve these people,” said Carmen Rodriguez. “They come out here and wait in line for food, but it’s not just physical nourishment that they seek. They come here for emotional and mental nourishment, too. People often come here stressed, and there’s nothing greater than seeing them walk through the doors and relax. The smile on their face when they leave is the best thing in the world.”

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