More than a year into the pandemic, operations are just now beginning to stabilize at the Thornton Township food pantry.

Though people are still coming by the hundreds to receive groceries, that is the kind of high turnout the south suburban township staff was used to before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early months of the virus in 2020, however, they were seeing closer to 1,000 people visit their Harvey facility each week for food, said Troy O’Quin, the manager of general assistance, who also oversees the food program.

O’Quin isn’t letting out a sigh of relief just yet. He is still bracing himself for an uncertain future.

As vaccinations become more widely available and people attempt to return to normal life, O’Quin worries that federal and local programs to protect residents from the pandemic’s economic fallout – like eviction and utility moratoriums and additional food assistance for school-age kids – could be lifted.

“Now, it’s just figuring out how do we turn things back on and restart everything and what’s that going to look like for the south suburbs?” he said. “I don’t know.”

Troy OQuin, Thornton Township's manager of general assistance, poses for a photo during its food pantry distribution

Troy OQuin, Thornton Township’s manager of general assistance.

Food assistance is one of the ways his neighbors have been able to navigate these difficult times so far, he said. And soon, with the help of a Food Depository grant, the township will be able to reach more people through a new client-choice market.

Thornton Township is one of 26 community sites that received the Food Depository’s recent round of partner grants. These partners, located primarily in communities of color hit hardest by the pandemic, are splitting $2.6 million to either open new spaces or transform existing ones.

As a result of systemic racism, communities with predominantly Black and Latino residents, including large swaths of the south suburbs, have been disproportionately affected by poverty and food insecurity long before the pandemic. That has only worsened as a result of COVID-19 and the economic crisis that followed.

“There’s been days where a person or a family will come in that’s more than needy,” said Jeff Elliott, who’s been helping out at the pantry for the last several years.

Jeff Elliot checks visitors in at a recent Thornton Township food distribution

Jeff Elliott checks visitors in at a recent Thornton Township food distribution.

“Once you give them that food, they’re not only than more than appreciative and thankful, they cry on the spot,” he added, as his eyes began to well up with tears.

With its grant funding, Thornton Township plans to open a second site later this year at Thornridge High School in nearby Dolton. The pantry will offer guests a grocery store-like experience in which they can select their own groceries. Currently, the township only offers pre-packed boxes of food.

“This empowers them to make the choices of what they need for their family, for their own dietary needs, and for their household,” O’Quin said.

The new pantry, O’Quin noted, will be in a residential area – an added benefit for those with limited transportation. It will have a separate entrance and exit from the school and will be open on Saturdays.

Until its opening, the township plans to do monthly pop-up distributions every last Saturday of the month at the site to promote the new pantry to come.

Workers at the Thornton Township food pantry pack cars with food

Workers at the Thornton Township food pantry pack cars with food. Later this year, the township plans to open a second location that will allow residents to pick their own groceries.

O’Quin also hopes to incorporate workforce development into the new facility, possibly by partnering with a local grocery store chain on a job training program that would teach participants the basic skills needed to work in the grocery business.

“It just enlarges our footprint,” he said of the entire project. “It lets people know there are resources to help them when they are in a tight spot, and it brings us into our larger area.”

It’s been a long year, O’Quin said, for both the pantry guests and those who are keeping it running.

“We’re all tired. None of us got a vacation last summer, so everybody’s looking at me like I’m crazy to add more to everybody’s plate,” he added with a laugh. “But at the same token, we realize the need is great. So the team is excited about the opportunities ahead and the chance to serve even more people in a more dignified way.”