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Hunger Beat

Serving up hot meals and warm community in West Pullman

“This place doesn’t just fill your stomach,” said Dale Wesley, 44, as he gestured to the Park Café guests eating and chatting around him. “This place gives me a sense of hope – like the community has my back.”

Park Café, the more common name of the soup kitchen run by the Seeds Center of Maple Park, serves a hot meal twice a week to their neighbors in West Pullman. Wesley is one of their grateful regulars.

Due to a recent surgery, he isn’t currently working. But groceries still cost hundreds of dollars a month, he lamented. Park Café helps fill in the gaps, Welsey said, and provides a needed chance to connect with people from the community he’s called home his whole life.

someone hands a woman a plate full of food

Guests enjoy meals made from scratch. (Photos by Jim Vondruska for the Food Depository.)

Growing Needs

Park Café started decades ago to provide home-cooked meals to under-resourced older adults in the community. During the recession in 2008, when neighbors were losing jobs and homes, the cafe started serving people of all ages.

To help feed additional guests, Park Café partnered with the Food Depository in 2013. Seven years later, COVID-19 created a new wave of need.

Today, 44 percent of West Pullman residents live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (a measure used to estimate need), meaning they don’t have the resources to cover basic living expenses and are often forced to make impossible tradeoff decisions between purchasing food and paying for housing, health care and other basic necessities.

a woman smiles at the camera

Pantry coordinator Vivian Lambert has been feeding the community for decades.

“With inflation right after the pandemic, a lot of people never really recovered,” said Vivian Lambert, who runs the soup kitchen. Seeds Center also recently opened a food pantry to help ensure neighbors have enough food throughout the week. “We want to continue to give back, especially to the many working people who don’t have enough food.”

Charmaine J. knows that often-invisible need. She goes to the café when she isn’t working at one of her two jobs. Her children are grown, and she does her best to help support her son and daughter with disabilities. When Charmaine fell on hard times a year ago, she lost her home and is still struggling to save for a security deposit for a new apartment.

“When I come here, I’m hungry. Where I stay is not a home. I don’t have a stove. This helps,” she said. “I sit at work every day and people don’t know I don’t have a home.”

As Charmaine gestured to her full plate of food and the women chatting at her table, she said, “This place means everything to me.”

Community and Dignity

Lambert knows that other guests come to Park Café mainly for a sense of community. “Some are seniors or unemployed or underemployed,” she said. “Some are just lonely. One guest told me that if not for the soup kitchen, she would spend most days alone.”

two people are hugging

Guests enjoy the warm community in addition to the hot meal.

Ernest Leggs, a single dad of four who works as a carpenter, understands that need. “You come here not only to get a meal, but to talk with people and engage in community,” he said, tearing up as he talked about the role Park Café plays in his life.

“That really means the world to a lot of people, including myself,” Leggs said.

Head chef Carmelle Ross, 68, is just as passionate about Park Café as the guests. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu at the age of 60, Ross said she loves cooking for others, especially with the items they receive from the Food Depository.

“It’s great for me as a chef because I get to cook with great ingredients, and it’s great for the diners because they get to eat delicious, healthy food.”

a woman dishes food onto a paper plate

Chef Carmelle Ross loves feeding her neighbors.

“With all the help from the Food Depository, we’ve been able to serve even more people and help the community. It’s a beautiful thing," Chef Ross said.

Guests are also encouraged to take meals to go for dinner that night or for family members who can’t attend. Mark Harper, 62, says it means everything “to come socialize” at Park Cafe and to bring a meal home to his ill wife.

“What I love about this place is that they really follow their motto: ‘Dining With Dignity.’ Everybody is treated equally,” said Leggs. “Some people are homeless, some people are barely holding on, some people just need a little extra help, but everybody is treated like family.”

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