Maria Llanos is a mother of two. She and her husband, both on disability, live with her mother in Chicago’s West Side.
Llanos and her husband both visit the Northwestern Settlement House’s food pantry when she needs help to make ends meet.
“They’re great because sometimes I’ll be low on food, and I got two kids and they really help,” she said. “The food pantry really helps our family.”
The Northwestern Settlement House was founded in 1891. According to Matthew Sudman, assistant director of institutional giving and outreach at the Settlement House, they first served predominately Eastern European immigrants.
“We were doing a lot of the same things we are doing today. We had food distribution back then. There was a Settlement cow, so we would have pasteurized milk for people,” Sudman said. “We were teaching English to people. Back in the early days we would use drama to teach language and elocution. Now, we’re the oldest, continuously operating settlement house in the city.”
Chicago’s first settlement house, the Hull House, was founded in 1889. It closed its doors January 2012. The Hull House now functions as a museum in the city’s Near West Side.
Brown has been working as a caretaker for Addus HomeCare for 27 years. She currently looks after two senior citizens; one is 80-years-old while the other is 65 or 66-years-old.
Standing next to her wheeled cart packed with food from the pantry, Brown was thankful for the assistance the pantry provides to the needy. “This makes up the difference for when we run short,” she said. “I come about every two weeks or maybe every three weeks. It’s two in one house, and one in the other one. So actually I pick up for two peoples.”
According to Sudman, the pantry purchases food from Chicago’s Food Depository for about five cents per pound of food.
“[For a year] we get about 425,000 pounds of food, whether it’s through the Food Depository or corporate and kind donations, about 10,000 pounds of clothing, about 1,000 pounds of toiletries and baby supplies, and about $135,000 in kind valued donations of household supplies from Crate & Barrel,” Sudman said.
The House serves 4,000 people a year, which totals out to about 2,000 families. Sudman said the rise of people coming to the pantry for assistance has risen.
“In the previous program year, new neighbors (or guests) to the program were just a fraction of this. So it’s doubled, tripled, we’ve gotten a lot of new people coming to us, mostly because late last year there was another agency, Onward House, who relocated out of West Town entirely,” Sudman said. “For the past year we’ve seen people who use to access their services come over here now. There’s still a lot of need in the community.”
The pantry still serves its familiar Polish, Ukrainian and Russian-speaking neighbors, but African-Americans and Latinos also visit.
The functionality of the pantry house largely depends on not only the hired staff, but also on volunteers.
One such volunteer is Emily Lien. Lien is a member of AmeriCorps, a national service organization, and volunteers for four hours a day at the Settlement’s food pantry. She also helps out with the Settlement’s preschool program called Head Start.
Drag and explore the food pantry
The House's food pantry room is named after Patricia Jaszka, who retired in 2004 after 46 years of service. (Photosphere by Penny Yi Wang)
Lien explained the process of signing in guests, a procedure that occurs before food is distributed: “To get the food, [guests] sign in. [I ask] how many people are in the house, and how many children, and if they get food stamps. With the computer it goes a lot faster. They come and bring in their I.D., and if they don’t have their current address they bring a light bill or a gas bill so they can prove where they live because we serve these three zip codes: 60610, 60622, 60642, so we’re only supposed to serve people in those zip codes, and we have resources here if they live outside the zip code.”
She shared her thoughts on the statistic provided by the Chicago Food Depository, which states that one in six people in the Chicago area are hungry.
“It’s shocking. Hearing that number, it’s hard to visualize that, even though you think about how many people you pass in a day and how many of those people are hungry. It’s really startling,” Lien said.
Steve Ross has volunteered at the Settlement House’s food pantry for five years. He distributes food to guests and also unloads food from the Depository’s food truck delivery.
“It only comes in on Tuesdays, between 1 and 2 p.m. We got seven skids, 20 boxes of meat, bread, pasta, it’s a variety of stuff,” he said.
Ross lives in the area and has developed connections with what the staff call their neighbors.
“I’m from the neighborhood so everyone knows me. There’s a good sense of urgency of people in need. I don’t like seeing people go hungry,” Ross said. “We’re supposed to be the richest country in the world and you got people that are starving. And that’s bad.”
Belna Reyes, director of emergency services, organizes the food pantry with the help of volunteers. First working as a lead teacher at the Settlement’s Head Start program in 1991, Reyes has been the director for 10 years.
She explained how the pantry operates: “We open almost five days a week, so we get sometimes seven or eight skids [of food from the Depository]. Our food distribution is from Monday through Thursday, from 9 to 11 and 1 to 3,” she said. “I am the one who orders the food through the Food Depository online. I order depending on what I’m missing here on a weekly basis. Through that order we’ll do it twice a week, every Tuesdays and every Friday.”
In its early days, the pantry would hand out bags of food to the needy with a set number of items in each bag. Now, the pantry practices what is called client-choice. Each neighbor can choose what food items he or she would like to take home. Reyes said this helps with the mishandling of food.
The Food Depository works with the food pantry in bringing not only food to their neighbors, but also clothing and other items not sold by Crate & Barrel. On Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. the food pantry turns into a clothing drive. Crate & Barrel also provides the pantry with items on clearance that do not sell.
When Reyes first came to Chicago, she was a single mother with two children, originally from New York. Reyes found herself seeking help from local food pantries. She now says that what she does for a living is her personal “payback” for the help she received when she was in need.
“This is a rich city, it’s a beautiful city. We should spend our time and our money more focused on the needy, the hungry, and especially the children,” she said. “I do the best I can. This is nothing like what it used to be 30 years ago. Thirty years ago it was like a block of cheese, those government cheese, that’s what I used to get. So now, there’s a variety [of food for the needy] and it’s good. If they need any help like with a phone call or a translation, we always try to get some help for them.”
The food depository accepts food and clothing donations throughout the year. During the holiday season, the pantry has gift-wrapping as well as Christmas baskets as a way of providing extra food to families in need.
The Adopt-A-Family program also occurs during the holiday season. The initiative joins together a needy family with someone that is able to not only provide toys to children, but also items of use to adults. According to Sudman, 1,200 children received toys through the programming last year. A total of 245 families were helped. One famous adopter was Chicago Bulls’ power forward Taj Gibson. He adopted a family of five last Christmas.
Matthew Sudman shared his thoughts on the status of hunger in Chicago: “We might not see [hunger] in our own neighborhoods, like living in Lakeview or Lincoln Park or in Evanston, you might not see hunger in the community. Or, you might think, well I live in a well-off neighborhood. We’re not that far away from Wicker Park and Bucktown, but you go through the neighborhoods and you’ll see people living in million dollar-new construction condos, but right across the street is an old run-down building, and there’s a family that’s going to our food pantry. It just makes me remember that there are places in Chicago where there are people that need support. It’s everywhere.”