Fresh flowers might be the last thing you’d expect to find at a food pantry, but they’re the first thing you see at Lakeview Pantry’s new location.

The flowers, clustered on the wall near the front door to provide a cheery greeting, give the building at 3945 N. Sheridan Road the look of a miniature Trader Joe’s.

That’s only appropriate because the grocery chain’s floral donations have long formed the basis for one of the pantry’s most important traditions: bouquets of cut flowers for clients to take home with their groceries.

Nobody could tell me exactly when the practice started, but as the story goes, the pantry’s workers came to pick up food items that the grocery chain was already donating and someone off-handedly offered the leftover flowers as well.

OPINION

The pantry staff was initially hesitant, said Kellie O’Connell, Lakeview Pantry’s executive director. The flowers seemed an extravagance for an organization focused on feeding the poor.

That quickly changed, she said, after watching the flowers bring smiles in a way that not even the food could.

“We saw what dignity it brought to our clients,” O’Connell said. “It’s become a core part of who we are.”

The flowers became so important that when the pantry decided to relocate from the storefront it previously rented at 3831 N. Broadway, a small flower section was included in the new building’s plans.

It was opening day Monday at Lakeview Pantry’s new building, a two-story gut rehab located beneath the CTA Red Line’s Sheridan Road stop.

When I arrived ninety minutes before opening, a nervous excitement buzzed through the room as volunteers and staff rushed through last minute preparations — an out-of-place stepladder looming conspicuously over the waiting area where clients would soon be arriving with their shopping carts.

The real core mission of Lakeview Pantry, of course, is handing out food to people who might not otherwise be able to properly feed themselves or their families.

In my reporting about the poor being squeezed out of the North Side, I’m always running into individuals who tell me about the good works of Lakeview Pantry.

I know it to be an important lifeline to thousands of North Siders, many of them elderly.

On any given weekday, some 100-120 people will stop by for its services, some 7,000 unique individuals served in the course of a year.

They will carry home 1.6 million pounds of food, some of them sticking around for social service assistance.

Only 3 percent of the pantry’s clients are homeless. Nearly half have young children.

It was a racially and ethnically mixed group that came through the doors at noon to partake of the pantry’s services, the stepladder no longer in sight. Many were Russians who come on Mondays when the pantry has a volunteer who can translate.

In the first hour, all seemed impressed by the supermarket feel of the new place. And all but one asked for flowers, the roses far and away being their preference.

“They’re for my mother,” said Eric Morris Sr., 52, who found the new pantry setup “easy and convenient.”

“I just need a week’s worth of food, that’s all. To get me by to the end of the month,” Morris said.

Eric Morris Sr., 52, picked out some red roses for his mother to go with his supply of free groceries from Lakeview Pantry, which opened a new location Monday at 3945 N. Sheridan. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Eric Morris Sr., 52, picked out some red roses for his mother to go with his supply of free groceries from Lakeview Pantry, which opened a new location Monday at 3945 N. Sheridan. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Francesca Burke, 56, picked out a red bouquet to go with her living room. She said the “flowers make you feel good,” noting that many of those coming to a food pantry don’t feel good about doing so.

“I don’t come that often, but I come when I have to,” Burke said.

On one of the first weekends in my new lakefront condo, I encountered a Lakeview Pantry volunteer making a delivery to a neighbor in my building.

It reminded me you don’t always know where and when you will find those in need.