As guests walked into the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry on a recent winter evening, they were greeted with folk music and ice water flavored with orange slices.
A dietitian stood at the front of the room, explaining how diet affects health as volunteers passed out samples of pineapple salsa. A guitarist strummed folk tunes as guests nodded along to the music. The music sounds like this:
Along the perimeter of the room, volunteer nurses offered blood pressure screenings and healthcare counselors helped clients access care. The pantry also had its own social service coordinator connecting guests to needed assistance.
It was just another Wednesday night at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry – part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of partner agencies in Cook County – which serves about 1,400 families per month from 13 different zip codes. The pantry aims to go above and beyond food distribution to improve the quality of its guests’ lives, said Michele Zurakowski, the pantry’s executive director.
“We’re looking to end hunger and you can’t do that with just groceries,” Zurakowski said. “We see nutrition education as being really fundamental in ending food insecurity.”
Take, for example, Dean Howard, a 64-year-old retiree who visits the food pantry once a month. Howard, who takes medicine for high blood pressure, said he’s learned to eat more fruits and vegetables because of the pantry’s dietitian.
“The people here are so courteous and polite,” Howard said. “It’s a great place to come and really get some guidance about your life.”
Similarly, Denise Kennedy, 61, said she turns to the pantry for healthy food when needed. Kennedy, who was recently laid off from her job, receives unemployment and SNAP benefits. But without any savings, she turns to the pantry to help offset grocery costs.
“It’s really easy to buy cheap junk food, especially when you are going through a rough time,” Kennedy said. “But this pantry allows for me to eat fresh food when I can’t afford it.”
“I clean houses and do anything to help provide for myself, but it can be discouraging,” she added. “Coming here to the pantry, I am reminded to be positive and keep my head up and find a job.”
Another pantry guest, Levar Artybridge, 39, said he struggled to find work and housing after returning to the Chicago last year following a prison stint in Detroit. He finally found a job as a line worker at a chicken processing plant. As he tries to restart his life, visiting the food pantry helped provide him with the necessary sustenance.
A dancer and a painter, Artybridge hopes to someday have the means to focus on his art.
“Nobody ever plans on struggling to make ends meet,” Artybridge said.
In addition to offering food at the pantry twice a week, the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry partners with the nonprofit Thresholds and the Oak Park Township to deliver groceries for about 80 families who face barriers to visiting the pantry, such as older adults and people living with mental illness.
In recent years, the pantry has experienced significant change and growth, Zurakowski said. When she first started with the pantry some 11 years ago, the annual budget was about $70,000. Today, the pantry has a budget of about $2.7 million, a reflection of the organization growing to meet the need of the communities that it serves.
“We were serving in one month what we now serve in one day,” Zurakowski said. “We’re grateful to the Greater Chicago Food Depository for its support as we’ve grown.”