Bernice Kenner refuses to sit at home and worry about life’s challenges.

We only get one life, she said. And Kenner wants to live hers to the fullest.

“Put a smile on your face and keep on pushing,” Kenner said. “Because if you don’t, nobody else is going to do it.”

Bernice Kenner poses in between tasks at the Coppin food pantry.

Bernice Kenner, a volunteer at Coppin Community Services’ food pantry. (Photos by Mateo Zapata for the Food Depository, unless otherwise noted)

Kenner, a 62-year-old mother and grandmother, volunteers every Monday at the Coppin Community Center food pantry on the city’s South Side. She still has the energy to do so despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments for metastatic breast cancer.

Kenner was first diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 20 years ago, she explained as she organized a table of dairy products and juice into neat rows. It had been in remission for several years before it was discovered again last August. This time around, it had spread.

Coppin Community Center, a longtime Food Depository partner, operates through the Coppin Memorial A.M.E. Church in the Washington Park neighborhood. The pantry provides food to several dozen households each week and, with the help of a Food Depository grant, is making strides to return to the level of service it was at before the pandemic – before Coppin closed its doors for more than a year until its volunteers like Kenner could get vaccinated against COVID-19.

A volunteer helps a guest during a recent distribution at the Coppin food pantry.

A volunteer helps a guest during a recent distribution at the Coppin food pantry.

For Kenner, volunteering at the pantry not only gives her a chance to spend time with her community –volunteers and guests alike – it also feeds her love for helping those in need. She doesn’t think anyone in the city of Chicago should ever go hungry.

“By the grace of God, he said, ‘I’m not ready for you; you’re not finished doing my work,’” Kenner said. “So I’m still here doing this work. And I’m going to stay here.”

‘Starting over’

Kenner is one of the pantry’s longtime, regular volunteers – or as coordinator Frankye Parham refers to them, her “originals.” Parham helped start her church’s pantry back in 2011.

Before the pandemic, Parham describes the facility as bustling with activity. In addition to the food pantry, which served around 150 families weekly, there was a biweekly hot meal program and a Boys and Girls Club for local youth.

But, in March of 2020, when much of the city closed due to stay-at-home orders, so did Coppin. Most of its volunteer base is older and/or at-risk, Parham said, and she wanted to protect them. In June 2021, when vaccines became widely available and the city began to reopen, the site started back slowly – reopening just the food pantry with a smaller group of volunteers. At first it was outdoors, but it was brought back indoors this winter with extra health precautions in place.

Pantry coordinator Frankye Parham

Pantry coordinator Frankye Parham (photo by Alyssa Schukar for the Food Depository)

“We’re starting over,” Parham said about getting the center back up and running. Whether Coppin will bring back old programs or start new ones is still being considered. For now, the focus is on the community’s most pressing needs: food.

For neighbors like Curtissa Rodriguez, the pantry has been a lifeline in a community that she said doesn’t have many other affordable options. Rodriguez, 46, has been coming to Coppin for several years. Before the pandemic, she supported herself by cleaning houses. That came to a halt during COVID, she said, and hasn’t picked back up. Even with a recent increase in her SNAP benefits, she still needs to visit the pantry to make ends meet.

Curtissa Rodriguez picks out fresh groceries for her and her family.

Curtissa Rodriguez picks out fresh groceries for her and her family.

“The cost of food went up,” she explained. “It’s crazy. I’m grateful for them being here. So grateful.”

Improving the experience

Coppin was the recipient of one of the Food Depository’s equity grants, which has provided millions of dollars to transform food pantries in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods across Cook County. These communities faced higher risk of food insecurity before and during COVID.

With its grant, Coppin purchased new refrigerators and freezers to hold more fresh groceries, new floors, and a bathroom remodel.

With these improvements, Parham and the volunteers are now able to help the guests walk through and pick out their own groceries. This gives the guests more control in what they take home, and eases the work for the smaller volunteer force, who before were preparing bags for families to take home.

Frankye Parham helps a guest with their selection of meat products.

Parham hands a guest their selection of meat products. In the renovated pantry space, guests are able to move through the line and pick out their own groceries.

“(It’s) more of a shopping experience,” she said, adding that the new improvements give them the flexibility to serve more people in need.

“I count on this,” South Shore resident David Morris said about the pantry. Morris, 58, worked as a bus attendant for Chicago Public Schools until he had to retire five years ago because of diabetes-related health issues.

Between healthcare costs and other living expenses, he said it can be difficult to afford food. But through the struggles, Morris said, he does his best to stay positive.

David Morris picks out food at the Coppin food pantry.

David Morris receives food at the Coppin food pantry.

“That’s the way I was raised,” he said. I don’t care what happens. You don’t ever let up.”

For Parham, feeding people is her “ministry.” Despite the challenges, her passion for service keeps her coming back week after week – especially now when so many are struggling to put food on the table.

“There’s a need, and God put it in my way,” she said. “That’s what I always say. If I didn’t want to do it, he would sidestep me. So, it’s in my way. I’ve gotta do it.”