Lena* was a 50-something veteran in poor health who had been living outside in a tent for several years when she came to Lakeview Pantry with three goals: to fix her food stamp benefits, to seek medical assistance and to get housing.
Lakeview Pantry Manager of Client Services Jennie Hull said she realized Lena’s Link card for the food stamp program was outdated but that since she had no mailing address, she would not have known. Hull provided Lena transportation to the nearest office of the Illinois Department of Human Services so she could pick up a new card.
“After helping Lena with something basic, I had earned her trust, which is difficult to do,” said Hull, who moved on to find her the Laboure Clinic that works with clients who have no income and no insurance. Lena learned about the Affordable Care Act and received CountyCare. Finally, Hull signed Lena up for Chicago’s Central Referral system for housing; she received a Housing Choice Voucher from the Veterans’ Administration and is looking for an apartment, her first “inside” home in five years.
Lakeview Pantry provides food or social services to 12,000 people annually. It is on track to distribute more than 1.5 million tons of food – through 40,000 client visits — in fiscal 2015, which began last April 1. Its large presence at 3831 N. Broadway St. and on the internet when someone is doing a search for food sources account for the increased demand for its services, officials say.
Demand for food rose about 8 percent annually during the recession and 12 percent this year because the Pantry extended its service area from Irving Park Road to Montrose; its other boundaries are Fullerton on the south, Damen Avenue on the west and the lakefront on the east.
Previously, word of mouth had attracted clients from the adjacent Uptown neighborhood.
Executive Director Gary Garland says the efficiency of Lakeview Pantry’s operations is yet another factor that draws patrons. Unlike totally volunteer-run organizations, the Pantry’s food distribution is a consistent six days a week. The Broadway location is open 12-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday while the 1414 W. Oakdale site is open 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Home delivery is three Saturdays a month. Clients can pick from food items on the counter and get in and get out quickly.
Visitors receive roughly two weeks worth of food and may go back weekly for fresh produce and bread. If first-time visitors do not live within the Pantry’s service area, they still receive a two-week supply, along with a referral to an agency nearer their home.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository supplies 40 percent of the Pantry’s food, on behalf of government agencies and as a wholesale distributor of milk and eggs. Three Trader Joe’s stores donate another 37 percent of the food.
“Neighbors helping neighbors” was the Pantry’s motto when it was founded in 1970 and Garland said it still holds true today. The Pantry receives no government money and 77 percent of its donors are individuals, most of whom live within a mile of its headquarters. “Folks who have received food in the past and who are currently receiving food work side by side with the person who has a million-dollar home,” Garland said of the volunteers.
Lakeview has gentrified since the Pantry’s founding. When Garland started at the agency in 1986, there were still two families sharing some of its large apartments that are now occupied by more affluent singles. An example is just across the street from the Pantry’s Broadway headquarters. The former Chateau Hotel, a Single Room Occupancy until nearly two years ago, is being remodeled into market-rate apartments.
Garland compares the neighborhood of 90,000 residents to densely populated Hong Kong. Nearly 10 percent of Lakeview residents– 8,000 people – are food insecure, he said. Almost half (48 percent) of the Pantry’s clients earn less than $12,000 a year; roughly 46 percent are disabled or retired. Another 30 percent are working, but in part-time or in low-wage service jobs.
Nearly half (46 percent) of clients said in a survey that they had to choose between buying food and paying rent in the previous year, while 39 percent had to choose between buying food and buying medications. Homeless people – either living in shelters or on the street – comprise about 5.3 percent of people who use the Pantry.
Newly unemployed people or those newly on Social Security are about 20 percent of Pantry clients. “One of the most surprising groups I work with, probably 30 percent of the people I see, are people who have a college degree, who are probably in their 50s or 60s, were laid off in the recession and who have a hard time getting a job now,” Hull said.
Many of these people are facing other barriers, such as age discrimination, she said. They have gone through their savings and are now visiting the Pantry to the surprise of others in their condo buildings. “I had a client who was a lawyer who was out of work and who said, ‘I want to work, I will do anything,’ ” she said.
Hull works with roughly 1,000 of the people who visit the Pantry annually. “What makes us different is that my office is right behind the counter so you can come right in,” she said. “This is like a one-stop shop.”
Patrons tell her that they like being able to tell their story just once instead of being referred around. “ ‘I can come here and get a majority of my needs met,’ ” they say.
Sometimes patrons have small issues that nonetheless pack a big emotional impact. A man noticed that other people often received flowers with their food at the Oakdale site. Since he could not afford a birthday gift for his mother, he found out from Hull how he could access a bouquet. A mother could not take her baby home from the hospital until she had a car seat for him. The Pantry was able to provide gift cards so she could buy one.
Besides short-term case management, Hull’s duties include long-term case management, engagement with outside providers, and advocacy.
Clients who may lack internet access go to her office to apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or health benefits as well as other government assistance.
“Let’s say someone comes in and goes, ‘I need a resume,’ “ she said. “I’ll say, ‘…come on a day when we’re not serving food and we’ll work one-on-one. Resumes are one of the most popular requests for long-term case management where clients work with Hull to build future opportunities. She also helps them find reliable, affordable housing and teaches them how to balance a budget.
Outside providers help with educational workshops. A major drugstore chain offered flu shots to clients, volunteers and staff. The City Colleges taught how to fill out a financial aid application. To better understand client needs, the Pantry hosts regular feedback sessions, “Coffee and Tea and with Greg & Jennie.” Besides Hull, the sessions include Greg Nergaard, Pantry coordinator at the Broadway site; Carrie McCormack is Pantry Coordinator on Oakdale.
The final aspect of social services is advocacy, in which Hull goes out into the community to meet with other like-minded organizations to be sure they are on the same page.
Local businesses have given their support, especially by displaying schoolchildren’s artwork of their holiday dinners from this year’s “Plates with Purpose” campaign on their windows. During the holiday season, Lakeview Pantry Marketing and Communications Manager Sarah Rubin has visited neighborhood schools – public, Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish – to partner with them in fundraising. Just $1 can provide 10 pounds of food for a neighbor in need, the students learn.
Rubin asks kids what they think is the purpose of a meal. One response was not only “to fill your tummy,” but “to hang out with friends and family.”
Although the Pantry employs 10 full-time employees, three part-timers and has help from two Amate House members and one Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, its roster of over 800 volunteers add the equivalent of 13 more full-time staff.
“Volunteers are the heart of the operation,” said Marketing and Communications Manager Sarah Rubin.
“If you walk in the doors during distribution, probably everyone you look at is a volunteer,” Hull added. Roughly 20 volunteers work each shift. Still others deliver to about 200 homebound seniors each month; these are people with heart disease or diabetes who can’t carry 50 pounds of groceries home on the bus, Garland said.
Volunteers also add outside-the-box activities to help clients. A dietitian monitors food going to diabetics and heart patients and also offers monthly “healthy bites” samples using ingredients from the Pantry. A stylist uses makeup and clothes from the Pantry’s clothes closet for mini-makeovers on jobseekers and a media buyer helps with mock interviews. Still others do fundraising and shoot videos.
A Young Leaders’ Board formed several years ago has coordinated four consecutive annual “Eliminate Hunger Socials.” They also guest bartend at local bars/restaurants; tips they collect on their shifts are donated to the Pantry.
Hull told the story of a college-educated client who had lost her job in the recession and who was scared. Hull helped her for about two months a year ago and then didn’t hear from her again. “I thought things got better or not better and then all of a sudden, she called me and said, ‘May I come in and meet with you?’ This was a couple of weeks ago,” Hull said.
The woman came in and said she had a job at a major bank now and had taken off for her birthday. “She said, ‘I wanted to come in and say thank you’ and she brought us a $1,000 check. I hadn’t heard from her in a year and she wanted to wait and save up so she could come back.
“I always like to tell clients, especially if they are here for the first time, it’s so overwhelming,” Hull said. “They’re so scared and they don’t know where to start and they go through 10 different things they want to work on. I always tell them, ‘this is not forever, this is just for right now.’ We’re here when you need us and then there will be a time you don’t need us and you may thank us and move on and we were happy to be here for you.”
* not her real name
By Austin Sanchez and Suzanne Hanney