On the Friday before Christmas, Reena and Ignacio received a turkey, a box of stuffing and canned cranberry sauce at the food pantry at St. Ignatius Church in Rogers Park.
Estranged from some of their family and low on money, the holidays are an especially difficult time for the longtime companions. Reena worked at a grocery store for many years before severe arthritis and multiple surgeries forced her to quit working, she said. Ignacio was recently laid off from a temp agency. They were homeless for a while.
But they also count their blessings. They live in a subsidized apartment now. And they can always find sustenance and kindness at the St. Ignatius pantry, one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s more than 700 partner agencies and programs across Chicago and Cook County.
“We’ve been grateful to the Lord for whatever we have to be thankful for,” said Reena, 53, who asked that their last names not be used.
A diverse mix of guests
The St. Ignatius food pantry serves about 200 families a month, said Kathy Morris, who has run the pantry for about 20 years. Most of the 500 or so people who receive food are children under the age of 18. And as with most food pantries in Chicago and Cook County, the guests are a diverse mix from various cultural backgrounds.
That doesn’t matter so much to Morris, though.
“I don’t care where you’re from. I just want to make sure you have food to feed your family,” said Morris, 64, whose belief in service was instilled in her Baltimore upbringing.
Many circumstances can lead to food insecurity. One pantry guest was enrolled in a master’s program at a local university with plans to pursue his doctorate. But he was temporarily unable to afford food, he said. Another man said he had struggled with mental illness all his life and was recently homeless.
Some were almost like family. An elderly woman who emigrated from the Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union said she had visited the pantry for more than 20 years. She chatted with Morris while her daughter gathered her groceries.
Carl Seipp, 57, has to choose sometimes between heat and eating, he said. Seipp, a diabetic with four stents in his heart, receives Social Security disability benefits. But it’s not enough to account for the rising costs of daily living, he said. Seipp shares a $900 apartment with others and sometimes they turn the heat off to save money on the bill.
“We do what we have to do,” Seipp said. “The food they give you here, you can make a meal out of.”
Serving a higher cause
Like other pantries in Cook County, St. Ignatius has shifted toward a client choice model intended to empower guests to have more control over their own dietary health. And there’s far more fresh produce and proteins than there used to be – a result of the Food Depository expanding its storage and distribution of those items, Morris said.
Morris used to work in retail, but longed for a more fulfilling job, she said. Some 20 years ago, she volunteered pouring coffee for the food pantry’s Thanksgiving dinner. Next thing she knew, Morris said, she was serving on the pantry’s board of directors and then running the whole operation.
She’s still inspired by the mission.
“At the end of the day, you know someone’s going to eat because of you,” Morris said.
She has good help. Michael Mooney, a former Army helicopter mechanic, has volunteered at the pantry nearly every Wednesday and Friday since 2001. On delivery days, Mooney, 57, arrives to do the heavy lifting.
“Because of this pantry, I have something to do that is bigger than me,” Mooney said. “If I didn’t, I would wallow in myself and not care about others.”
In 1998, Mooney was diagnosed with pituitary tumors, leaving him permanently disabled and unable to work. He started coming to St. Ignatius food panty as a client. Today, he receives Social Security Disability, but he still comes back to the pantry every week to volunteer.
“It’s really become a part of who I am,” Mooney said.