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Pan De Vida full-time food distribution hub to open in Little Village in the first half of 2022

The not-for-profit New Life Centers of Chicagoland’s twice-weekly pantry program has been providing groceries to 6,000 families a week since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

People receive free groceries Dec. 21, 2021, via drive-thru and walk-up service at New Life Centers of Chicagoland’s Pan De Vida pantry in Little Village.
People receive free groceries every Tuesday and Friday via drive-thru and walk-up service at New Life Centers of Chicagoland’s Pan De Vida pantry in Little Village.
Peter Winslow / Sun-Times

Julia Vega waits in line every week at the New Life Centers’ Little Village food distribution center with a collapsible grocery cart by her side.

The Little Village resident is one of about 30,000 people who rely on free groceries from the center each week. She counts on the dry goods, fresh produce, milk and other items to feed her family, and she shares some of it with neighbors.

“Pan De Vida is a miracle and helps many people who don’t have a job or their health,” said Vega, 47.

Pan De Vida was providing food to about 100 families a week before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, about 6,000 families are getting free groceries every week, said Matt DeMateo, executive director of not-for-profit New Life Centers of Chicagoland, which plans to open a full-time food distribution center in the first half of 2022. It will be an extension of its Pan De Vida pantry program that serves Little Village and other nearby neighborhoods.

For more than a year, people have picked up their free groceries every Tuesday and Friday either by drive-thru and walk-up service offered by New Life Centers, which also provides youth mentorship, sports programming and other educational and community outreach.

As the need for food grew with the pandemic, so did the size and scope of the Little Village distribution site at South Lawndale Avenue and West 27th Street.

People pick up groceries from Pan De Vida. New Life Centers of Chicagoland plans to open a full-time food distribution center in 2022.
New Life Centers of Chicagoland plans to open a full-time food distribution center in 2022, an extension of its Pan De Vida pantry program that serves Little Village and nearby neighborhoods.
Peter Winslow / Sun-Times

Little Village was hit hard by COVID-19 and the resulting unemployment in the first months of the pandemic. South Lawndale, the community area that includes Little Village, was one of the city’s most affected, according to the city of Chicago’s COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository prioritized 40 communities in Cook County with high levels of food insecurity at the beginning of the pandemic. South Lawndale is still listed as a high priority.

“The food insecurity rate countywide is about 12%,” said Kate Maehr, executive director and chief executive officer of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “In South Lawndale, the food insecurity rate is, we estimated, 42%. It is staggering, and it is a densely populated community.”

The growth of New Life Centers’ Little Village pantry came as a result of its community ties, a partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the acquisition of Gela’s Fruteria, a corner store across from the faith-based nonprofit’s church.

When the pandemic limited walk-in traffic in Gela’s Fruteria, the store’s longtime owner decided to sell.

“Gela gave us the keys and said, ‘Use it until I sell,’ ” DeMateo said.

A sandwich board about walk-up and drive-up Pan De Vida food pantry hours.
Pan De Vida in Little Village gives away groceries twice a week.
Peter Winslow / Sun-Times

New Life Centers used the space to open a pop-up, drive-thru service where people could pull their cars around the corner and have their trunks filled with groceries

It was such a success that New Life Centers and its partners raised nearly $500,000 to buy and renovate the building in a deal finalized in September 2020.

The first floor of the distribution hub at 2701 S. Lawndale Ave. will feature a marketplace where people can get free groceries. The second floor will have office space and a technology center with Internet access and other resources for the community, DeMateo said.

New Life Centers says it has fed about two million people through its seven food distribution sites in Albany Park, Brighton Park, Humboldt Park, Little Village and Midway. Many of these operate once a month. The Little Village drive-thru will continue to operate twice a week alongside the new distribution center.

“We are kind of debating what it’ll look like, how long we will continue drive-up services because we’ll have walk-up,” DeMateo said.

New Life Centers’ Little Village pantry is one of the highest-volume distribution sites in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of more than 700 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.
New Life Centers’ Little Village pantry is one of the highest-volume distribution sites in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of more than 700 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.
Peter Winslow / Sun-Times

New Life Centers’ Little Village location is one of the highest volume distribution sites in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of more than 700 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

“They have helped us transform the way we think about the work that we do,” Maehr said.

As word of Pan De Vida spread, people from nearby neighborhoods began to show up.

“It’s been growing tremendously,” said Diana Franco, the administrative coordinator for the pantry. “Each day, we just get new people, and they continue to come.”

DeMateo hopes the marketplace will also lead grocery recipients to the other services New Life Centers offers.

“​​If food can bless a family and get them in, what else do they need?” he said.