Just a few blocks from Chicago’s lakefront on the South Side is The First Presbyterian Church of Chicago.

Right before 10 a.m. on Thursday mornings, a line of people begins to form down South Kimbark Avenue toward the church. They are in search of fresh produce – and waiting for its Free Food Market to open its doors. First Presbyterian, located in the Woodlawn neighborhood, hosts this weekly food pantry for those in need.

Friends of the Community
Genora Stone

Genora Stone, volunteer at First Presbyterian Church

Genora Stone, 51, greets everyone that comes through the pantry with a smile that shines through her face mask. Stone, who also serves on at least five other neighborhood councils, has been volunteering at the market for over two and a half years. She describes pantry guests as “our friends of the community.”

“Hello! How are you? Come right on in!” she tells them.

The Free Food Market primarily serves three neighborhoods: Woodlawn, Chatham and South Shore. Within the last year, a majority of these guests have been new faces. Many of the newcomers, Stone explained, are those also currently facing homelessness.

Stone described the market as an important staple of the community, especially because visitors are able to go through and choose their own groceries.

“The need for help is here,” Stone said. “It’s up to us to make sure that we’re feeding the needs for the people that we serve.”

Nutrition that goes a long way

Patricia Rhoden, is a retired Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operator. She worked with the CTA for 28 years and has been living off of her pension since 2003. The rising cost of food has made it difficult for her to regularly afford nutritious food. Rhoden receives dialysis three times a week, including Thursdays. A shuttle drops her off and picks her up at the church for the market.

Patricia Rhoden and student volunteer

Patricia Rhoden and student volunteer

Because of her dialysis treatments, Rhoden has to adhere to several dietary restrictions. She’s grateful that she can pick the fresh fruits and vegetables that she needs.

“I’m a pretty decent cook so I always pick the vegetables,” she said.

From gardening to educating

Director Gail Robinson uses the pantry as an opportunity to educate her neighbors on the importance of a healthy diet. With a master’s degree in dietetics, she understands how important proper nourishment is for the body.

“These are the same patients that we see in the hospital,” she said.” And it made food insecurity real to me.”

Gail Robinson, food pantry director

Gail Robinson, food pantry director

Robinson, started as a volunteer in 2016. At the time, she was helping with one of the church’s fresh gardens, which is when she first started working with the food pantry’s guests.

She is looking forward to implementing some of the Food Depository’s upcoming nutrition education initiatives, which includes offering additional recipe cards, guidance on healthy alternatives, and cooking demonstration videos.

“We want to make sure we’re meeting their needs,” says Robinson.

When asked why she volunteers, Stone also expresses that need.

“If I see anything that needs to change or be of hope, I need to be part of that change,” she said. “Nothing is going to get done just by saying ‘I want to see something get done’ if you’re not part of your solution.”