Monsignor Michael M. Boland

Feeding the hungry

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

During September, Hunger Action Month, it is important to educate ourselves about hunger and how we can get involved to change lives for the better. This month I reflect back to 2005 when Catholic Charities opened Casa Catalina Basic Human Needs Center in Back of the Yards and the tremendous impact it has had on the community. 

When Catholic Charities got involved in the project, we knew that the food pantry was bringing much more than food to the neighborhood — it was bringing hope for the future. We were accompanying other Catholic organizations that had been serving Back of the Yards for generations.

The original food pantry began in 1983 as a joint effort between Holy Cross and Immaculate Heart of Mary parishes, which had merged in 1981. Parishes from near and far, including suburban areas, have faithfully supplied volunteers and donated foods over the years.

Catholic Charities officially took over operation of the food pantry in 2005, moved it to a former restaurant near HC/ICM church and added other basic human needs services such as a clothing room, health fairs and access to social services. We christened the center “Casa Catalina” after Blessed Catherine Kasper, founder of the religious order Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, which has worked in Back of the Yards since 1884.

Catholic Charities was eager to be involved in Casa Catalina because hunger is the number one reason people seek our services, and we are continually looking for ways to fight hunger in communities that are most in need. As Pope Francis says, “hunger is a scandal,” especially in wealthy metropolitan areas like our own.  

In Cook County, official estimates indicate that one in seven households has limited access to safe and/or nutritionally adequate food to meet basic needs. These statistics are shocking enough, yet we know that in neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, which face the challenges of violence and poverty, the numbers of hungry people are much higher, and the consequences of hunger much more profound.  

Not only do these communities have high numbers of working poor families whose low wages do not cover monthly expenses of food, clothing, housing, utilities, child care and medical needs, but they also may lack proper grocery stores, so access to healthy foods is further restricted by the quantity and quality of the foods available.

Catholic Charities considers each one of our food and nutrition programs the essential first step in helping people escape poverty. Without access to nutritious food to nourish the body and mind, it is very hard to overcome poverty. 

Hunger and food insecurity contribute to a number of debilitating health and mental health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, depression, anxiety, heart disease and poor academic performance that perpetuate poverty and make it difficult for low-income families to improve their situations.

Casa Catalina has not only become an essential source of nourishment for the body and mind in Back of the Yards, but it also provides nourishment for the soul. Poor Handmaid Joellen Tumas, who started with the food pantry in 1990 and is now director of Casa Catalina, works with her dedicated crew of volunteers to ensure that each bag of food is accompanied by love and respect. Simply being a constant and trusted presence in the neighborhood and walking with people on their journey through challenging circumstances helps to restore hope and dignity. 

As you contemplate how to participate in Hunger Action Month, remember that your time volunteering in a food pantry or your gift of donated food does more than fill empty bellies — you are helping families take that first critical step out of poverty, filling them with hope for the future, and truly sharing the Bread of Life. 


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