Food pantries help others during holiday season

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Food pantries help others during holiday season

Is your parish having a food drive this year? What about your school, or service organization like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts? You’re not alone.
Volunteers Jose Serrano and Luciano Blanco fill bags with food for families at Casa Catalina, 4537 S. Ashland Ave., on Jan. 23, 2019. Casa Catalina is a Catholic Charities basic needs center and food pantry that has been providing food and services to Back of the Yards residents for 30 years. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ Sister Joellen Tumas works with Laura Diaz at Casa Catalina on Jan. 23, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Clients form a line around the block at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels food pantry on Aug. 13, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers help guests select food at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels food pantry on Aug. 13, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Youth volunteers sort vegetables at the St. James Food Pantry, 2907 Wabash Ave., on Jan. 9, 2016. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Is your parish having a food drive this year? What about your school, or service organization like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts?

You’re not alone.

“We absolutely want to thank all of our donors,” said Sister Stephanie Baliga, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist of Chicago. The sisters staff the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in West Humboldt Park, which serves more than 1,500 clients a month at its food pantry, 3814 W. Iowa St. “The holiday food drives people do are absolutely sustaining for us. All of the food pantries are sustained by them.”

But the people who operate food pantries also want all the generous people who give them food to maybe put a little more thought into the process.

“Please check the dates on the food,” Sister Stephanie said. “If you’re clearing out your pantry, and something has a best-used-by date of 2017, we can’t use that.”

Sister Joellen Tumas, a Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ who manages the food pantry at Casa Catalina, 4537 S. Ashland Ave., echoed that sentiment.

“Sometimes people give us items that are three or four years out of date,” she said. “If you wouldn’t eat it, why do you expect our clients to?”

Casa Catalina is closed this month while its space is renovated to become a “client-choice” pantry, Sister Joellen said, with plans to reopen in December. That means that instead of receiving pre-packed bags or boxes of food, clients can shop the shelves of the pantry, choosing the items they want.

That allows them to satisfy both their own personal taste as well as any health or special nutrition requirements they might have, Tumas said.

“We’re always in need of healthy choices,” she said, including low-salt canned goods, reduced-sugar items and gluten-free food for people who are gluten intolerant.

She did note that the pantry will still give out Thanksgiving food baskets to regular clients.

At the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, the food pantry moved into expanded space in the former Our Lady of the Angels school building earlier this year, and the new space allows clients to choose what they want to take home, Sister Stephanie said.

“It really gives people a lot of dignity because they can choose what they want to eat,” she said.

That goes hand-in-hand with the nutrition education the mission offers to clients such as cooking classes.

“They can go find the things they need to make a recipe they just learned, or find things that meet the standards for a kind of healthy food we just talked about,” she said. “And it cuts down on food waste. We used to give out bags of food, and I would see bunches of food thrown to the side because people didn’t want it.”

Pantry managers say things that people do want include the staples that donors often eat: peanut butter, pasta, rice, cereal, healthy snack food, canned fruits and vegetables.

“Peanut butter is good because it is nutritionally dense,” said Catherine Moore, who manages the food pantry at St. James Parish, 2907 S. Wabash Ave. St. James is a “partial choice” pantry, meaning clients choose some food and get some pre-packed. “It’s hard for people because many of our clients don’t have cars and they have to carry it home.”

Many clients at St. James prefer boxed dry items like pasta and cereal to canned goods, she said,

The parish also serves meals to people who are homeless or otherwise in need, and also could use donations of the things like crackers to offer them.

“Hot chocolate, too,” Moore said. “When people come in and it’s cold out, you want to be able to offer them a hot drink. That’s just hospitality.”

Sister Stephanie said all of the above are good suggestions. Her clients also appreciate spaghetti sauce and canned fish or chicken, she said.

Greg Trotter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository said the food bank works with 700 partner agencies and programs in Cook County, including many faith-based food pantries. Last year, one in eight people (and one in six children) in the county faced food insecurity, and the depository and its partners fed more than 650,000 people. Those clients made 1.5 million visits to partner organizations and received 5.5 million meals.

“While the economy has improved since the recession, it’s been an uneven recovery,” Trotter said. “Many of the people we serve are working families struggling to make ends meet, where they’re either underemployed or their wages just haven’t kept up with the cost of living.”

“This economy hasn’t been very good for our folks,” said Sharon Tillmon, director of the Family Stabilization Services Department of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The department operates seven basic needs centers that include food pantries across the archdiocese, including Casa Catalina. Demand has remained high, she said, although in some immigrant communities, people have become fearful of coming to the pantry to ask for food. Demand for food is also growing in the suburbs, she said, from Round Lake to Park Forest.

Trotter echoed the pantry managers’ call for donations of healthy food, but suggested organizations could help more by participating in “virtual food drives” in which donors can give money online. That money can go toward fresh produce, meat and dairy foods, Trotter said, and since the depository isn’t buying retail, money goes a lot further.

Such fresh items are distributed through monthly mobile food pantry stops at several locations, including St. James and the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.

Sister Stephanie pointed out that donors who want to help a particular food pantry can also donate directly to that pantry’s account at the depository.

“I can buy so much more food with the money there,” she said.

One thing the pantries need that they can’t get from the food depository is hygiene items.

“Clients can’t get those with SNAP,” the state’s food-assistance program, Moore said. “Soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, razors … people always need those.”

Tillmon said feminine hygiene products are always needed as well, and with winter coming early this year, so are socks, hats, gloves and blankets.

All of the Catholic Charities pantries serve different communities and have different needs, she said, so if donors want to organize a food drive, the best thing to do is call the pantry where they plan to donate.

“They’ll be able to tell you exactly what they need,” she said.


  • corporal works of mercy
  • hunger

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