No longer will clients have to line up outside in the cold while waiting for food at Care for Real, a longtime food pantry in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.After months of planning and construction, Care for Real staff and local partners met this week to cut the ribbon on the renovated facility. Improvements include a bright and spacious waiting area for clients, new office space and a significantly expanded closet for donated clothes. Founded in 1970, Care for Real is part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of more than 700 partner agencies and programs in Chicago and throughout Cook County. “The renovations allow us to serve our clients in a way that’s truly dignified and respectful,” said Lyle Allen, executive director of Care for Real. The improvements also enable the agency to better serve an increasing number of clients particularly among older adults, in Edgewater, Allen said. Care for Real serves about 5,800 people each month, he said, a figure that has increased about 10 percent since the beginning of the year. Most of the new clients coming in the doors are over the age of 60 – a reflection of rising costs in a gentrifying neighborhood outpacing fixed incomes, Allen said. Care for Real also recently expanded its borders to serve more people.
“All of us are fighting that misperception that who we’re serving is that guy on the side of the highway, when really it’s your neighbor who’s suffering in silence,” Allen said.Before he helped cut the ribbon, Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, called Care for Real “the heartbeat of the neighborhood.” “So many people are living day to day, month to month,” Osterman said. “Care for Real has been a beacon of hope.” Care for Real was founded as a response from local faith leaders to help the displaced people of so-called “Arson Alley,” the Kenmore-Winthrop corridor between Foster and Devon avenues. At the time, that part of Edgewater had suffered from years of blight and disinvestment; many of the apartment buildings in the corridor were set on fire, hence the nickname. The pantry is still supported by local churches, synagogues and a mosque, Allen said. Care for Real has grown in size and impact since its early days, said Tom Robb, who was the agency’s first executive director. “People in this community just keep making it happen,” said Robb, who was on hand at the ribbon cutting ceremony. Previously, Allen worked as executive director of the Green City Market, one of Chicago’s largest and most renowned farmers markets. In 2008, under Allen’s leadership, the market applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become one of the first farmers markets to accept electronic benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That experience indirectly led Allen to Care for Real, where he’s been since 2012. “I made a life decision to give back more to the community,” Allen said. “I’ve never had a more fulfilling job.”