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Hunger Beat

West Side food pantry lifts up community in need

Linda Norris, a proud grandmother of 12, recently earned a new title: great-grandmother.

Her eldest granddaughter recently welcomed her first child.

“A little girl,” Norris said with a smile.

When her grandkids come to visit, Norris wants to make sure she has enough to feed everyone. She likes to cook them healthy meals with fresh vegetables, and – like most grandmothers – bake sweets from time to time.

“I can cook pretty good,” she said. “And I can get them to eat anything I cook.”

To have all of the groceries she needs for herself and her big family, Norris stops by her local food pantry – Above and Beyond in West Garfield Park. Norris, 62, is retired. She receives SNAP benefits and does some caretaking work to supplement her income, but she said those don’t always cover all she needs.

“When there’s things I’m not able to get from the store, I come here and they have it,” she said. “And that’s a blessing.”

‘We’ll figure it out together’

The food pantry, which opened in early 2021, is a new and quickly growing addition for the nearby Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center, an outpatient facility supporting people with addiction and other personal barriers. When the pandemic lockdowns hit last year and other food assistance programs had to close their doors, the center noticed the need for food rise and decided to step up, said Melissa Hernandez, Above and Beyond’s director of outreach who oversees the food pantry.

A volunteer helps a guest at the Above and Beyond food pantry.

A volunteer helps a guest at the Above and Beyond food pantry.

“The pandemic probably had something to do with it, but we’re also in a community that lacks a lot of resources,” said Hernandez. “We have a food apartheid here.”

In partnership with the Food Depository and other local community groups, like the Hojo Family Assistance Program, the center transformed a vacant building on South Pulaski Road. Now, it’s filled with tables of food, clothes, books and other household goods. Anyone, not just those involved in the center’s programming, can stop by.

In its early months, the pantry – open Tuesday through Saturday – was serving about 80 people a week. Now, they can see that many people in just one day. Nowadays, the site averages about 300 visitors a week, according to Chris Kievit, Above and Beyond’s AmeriCorps VISTA food pantry manger. Kievit said that jump has mostly been through word of mouth between guests.

“I’m still shocked by how fast we have grown, the impact we’re having on the community, the constant support,” said Hernandez. “It’s amazing.”

Melissa Hernandez oversees the Above and Beyond food pantry.

Melissa Hernandez oversees the Above and Beyond food pantry.

The work is personal for Hernandez. The 39-year-old mother of two is a survivor of human trafficking, drug addiction and incarceration. She’s now been clean for 20 years. Managing life’s hurdles hasn’t been easy, but Hernandez said she was driven by her sons – now 17 and 12.

“Because of my desire to want something better not only for myself, but more so for my children – to protect them from everything I went through – I kept pushing and pushing,” she said. “Then I just had to figure everything else along the way.”

She started doing community-based work six years ago after going back to college. Now, in addition to her work with Above and Beyond, she also runs The Puerto Rico Project, a nonprofit providing aid to people facing homelessness and substance abuse, among other challenges.

Her life experience, she explained, allows her to relate to many of those who come to Above and Beyond with their own struggles.

“People say I can’t do it, and I say, ‘What’s your barrier? We’ll figure out together’,” she said.

Offering more support

Alan Sutton, 57, was born and raised on Chicago’s West Side. For a living, he does landscaping and similar handywork, but the pandemic slowed much of that down. Luckily, Sutton said he’s starting to see some of those jobs return, especially as home and business-owners prepare for the cold winter months.

With the help of a volunteer, Alan Sutton boxes his groceries.

With the help of a volunteer, Alan Sutton boxes his groceries.

In the meantime, he turns to pantries like Above and Beyond. The food supports him, his brother and his father, who all live together.

“The food places helped out tremendously,” Sutton said.

A native of Paraguay, Juana Perez, 68, has been living in Chicago for nearly 30 years. She’s retired now but used to work cleaning homes. She’ll occasionally still do cleaning work, but her body aches now.

“El cuerpo ya no se puede,” Perez said. “My body will no longer allow it.”

She visits Above and Beyond whenever she is in need of groceries for herself, her two children and three grandchildren, all of whom live with her. She said she comes for the variety of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the kindness she receives when she comes through the doors.

Because of the pantry’s donated, prepared foods, Perez recalled recently being able to pick up a torta, a Mexican-style sandwich on toasted bread that is often stuffed with meat or other traditional toppings. As she talked about what that meant to her, Perez became emotional.

“¡Cuánto tiempo que tenía una torta!” she said. “How long has it been since I had a torta!”

With the pantry’s growth, Hernandez and her team have been looking for ways to expand. This month, they signed a lease on the building next door, which will serve as a case management space to help people beyond their food needs.

Currently, there’s one person stationed at the pantry helping visitors connect to other needed resources like housing, transportation and addiction services. In this expanded space, she expects to have four to five case managers and space to train even more.

The goal, just like it is with the food pantry, is to meet people where they’re at.

“It’ll have a huge impact,” Hernandez said. “The idea is to reach that person as soon as they walk in the door and request services.”

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