Twice a week, the long line of people experiencing food insecurity queues along the east side of Kenilworth Avenue adjacent to First United Church of Oak Park, where in the basement the Oak Park Food Pantry operates.
Young and old, infirmed and able-bodied, in mid-August about 150 people are waiting patiently, clutching the handles of grocery carts, and such.
In turn, and with dignity and respect, the group soon will be let in to register, then shop for a monthly ration of groceries, which clients hand pick from the shelves, refrigerators and freezers. Much of the food has been purchased from the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s warehouse with the dollars donated by individuals, churches, businesses and other supporters of this local place that serves Oak Park, and the communities that border it.
“Right now [mid-August] we are serving about 1,400 families a month,” says Paula Berg, pantry manager. “We are seeing a lot of new families now. I am wondering if it is families who normally have children in school, and their kids during the school year receive breakfast and lunch at school. If they don’t have that option it adds about $300 a month onto a family food bill so that is a big impact.”
Prepping for this Wednesday’s Distribution Day are about 40 volunteers. In an hour or so, they will distribute some 45 pounds of food, or about five large grocery bags per family, Berg says.
“It is so much nicer that people get to shop for themselves now. That model of food distribution is called ‘Client Choice’ and it means that people get to choose their own food, just as you and I do at a grocery store,” says Michele Zurakowski, the executive director. “I think what we are seeing is that the number of visits to the food pantry has stabilized, but actually, individual people are needing to visit a food pantry more often because chronically unemployed people are using the food pantry now, people who are struggling a little bit more.”
Some volunteers pitch in with flair.
“Most of what I pass out is in a can, peas and carrots, green beans, spinach and three bean salad,” says two-times–a-week volunteer Charles Lake, 67. “Before the clients arrive, I surf on the computer, looking for different recipes, so when they come through the line, I can share ideas and tips with them,”
In addition, thanks to a partnership with Concordia University, some Wednesdays, students in the school’s nutrition program drop in to do onsite food demos and nutrition talks for clients.
“When I first started volunteering here we prepared bags ahead of time with standard stuff. The client never came back here [into the pantry] and now they do. There is a lot more food insecurity than anyone really appreciates,” says Barb Weakly, a former surgical ICU nurse, and now a retired tax accountant that her fellow volunteers call “the organizer.” “It is really enlightening when you really understand how many people need food. The other thing, too, is when you see the clients, and they are so appreciative and thankful for us, and what they get here. That’s what feeds you as a volunteer.”