Sifting and sorting: Amy Brogioli, left, and Orly Slobodkin sort through donated fruit Thursday at the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry.Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

It was lunchtime on a Thursday afternoon when a petite woman knocked on the basement door of the First United Church of Oak Park that leads to the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry. Dressed in slacks and a smart blue shirt, Orly Slobodkin wasn’t quite dressed for the task ahead, but she’d come straight from teaching French classes at a local school, and didn’t want to be late. In her two months as a volunteer, she’d come to look forward to her weekly work for the food pantry.

It was Slobodkin’s designated day to fetch fruits and veggies that had reached their sell-by-date from a local grocery store, as part of a food pantry effort called Produce Rescue. Joining her was the pantry’s resource gleaner, Amy Brogioli.

According to Brogioli, who joined the food pantry staff last fall, the Produce Rescue program was born when previous staffers reached out to local grocers, who in turn agreed to donate produce that could no longer be sold in store, but was still fully fit to eat. As more stores signed on, the food pantry kept upping their ambitions. “We, as an organization, wanted to do even more, seeing that that was a possibility,” Brogioli said.

Volunteers gather on different days of the week to collect produce from Ultra Foods on Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, Whole Foods on Lake Street in River Forest, and Trader Joe’s on Harlem Avenue in Oak Park. A delivery service, called Door to Door Organics, also supplies goods, and other stores donate non-produce items; Red Hen Bread and Panera supply bread, and Penzey’s donates spices.

On Thursday, Slobodkin and Brogioli piled into Slobodkin’s silver vehicle, which looked something like a cross between a hatchback and an SUV. She worried that it wouldn’t be spacious enough to fit all of the food collected, but Brogioli assured her they’d make do.

And indeed they did. Upon arriving at Ultra Foods, they tracked down the produce manager, Daryl. “I don’t know if there’s much today,” he said, immediately retreating to the back to pull out the cart filled with boxes of food. He pulled it all the way to the car, and helped pack it securely inside, warning Slobodkin of possible leakage from the fruit boxes.

Brogioli said that at first, volunteers made Ultra runs only once per week. But since the food pantry is open for clients to pick up food on two days per week, and Ultra seemed so organized and efficient in gathering the food, the food pantry upped their Ultra visits to twice a week. “They were so together,” said Brogioli.

Slobodkin said the grocery store personnel aren’t the only ones that are organized. Food pantry staffers are both organized and enthusiastic about their work, which makes it an ideal experience for volunteers. “It works very well,” she said of the program. “The team is always energetic…and everybody’s so nice.”

“We’re never short people, unless something comes up,” Brogioli said. In which case, there’s usually someone to fill in. But for the most part, people like Orly make the first move. “A lot of volunteers come to us,” she said.

That’s because their work significantly impacts some 1,400 families per month, give or take. “Most people live in a food desert,” said Paula Berg, food pantry manager. Unless the nearest large grocery store is within walking distance, those people are limited to corner stores and convenience stores for most food. Produce is pretty much out of the question. But in their effort to provide foods that contribute to a more well-balanced diet, the food pantry has lately bumped up its pursuit of fresh produce. “We know we need to supplement the canned foods,” said Kathy Russell, the food pantry’s executive director, emphasizing its mission to serve nutritious food.

That means not only more fruits and vegetables but also more fresh meats and dairy. And it doesn’t come cheap. But thanks to Produce Rescue stores, summertime farmers’ markets, and another program by the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), which “rescues” those healthful items from grocery stores around Chicago, the effort to offer wholesome foods has become more and more successful. Additionally, there’s more food to go around. Between all the rescue programs, the pantry had enough food to nearly quadruple their normal offerings to each family last week.

Thanks to a grant, the food pantry also works with a registered dietician, who helps clients map out healthy approaches to food. The nutritionist offers dietary advice for clients with diabetes and hypertension, recommends recipes and different methods of food preparation, and sometimes simply helps to identify exotic items picked up from a local store or farmers’ market.

Berg said the increase in produce donations has sometimes turned up some pretty interesting foods. Parsnips, for instance, garnered some quizzical looks. And a batch of pig tails and pig necks got a confused reaction from the food pantry staffers, though the clients familiar with Southern styles of cooking knew just what to do with them.

It’s a rewarding experience, to help quell hunger one individual family at a time. “We’re really on a mission,” said Russell.

And workers can’t help but enjoy reaching out to the community in a helpful and healthy way. “I’ve never been so excited about a box of tomatoes before,” said Brogioli.

“We just get so excited,” said Berg, “when we can offer the really healthy alternatives to clients.”

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