Chicago food pantries are serving more people but seeing fewer volunteers

As inflation sends prices higher, food pantries across Chicago worry the increased demand will tax their shrinking pool of helpers.

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Natia Barnett, program expansion manager at Nourishing Hope, organizes boxes of groceries during a recent food distribution event outside G & A Senior Residence of Eastgate Village in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

Natia Barnett, program expansion manager at Nourishing Hope, organizes boxes of groceries during a recent food distribution event outside G & A Senior Residence of Eastgate Village in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Natia Barnett sometimes finds herself packing her car with food when there aren’t enough volunteers to make deliveries to senior citizens and those living with disabilities.

Barnett, the program expansion manager at the pantry Nourishing Hope, said she wants the delivery program to reach more buildings on the South and West sides.

On a recent Saturday, Barnett had only four people volunteer to do deliveries on the South and West sides versus 20 who signed up to deliver food on the North Side. The delivery program focused on the North Side has been around for decades, but the one on the South and West sides is struggling to grow without more volunteers.

“It is a challenge that happens, and we have to kind of come up with a solution on the fly,” Barnett said.

Other food pantries across Chicago say they are facing the same problem as the cost of basic necessities goes up. In June, inflation rose to the highest it has been in four decades, with residents seeing price increases in food, gas and housing, according to the Associated Press.

In June, there were nearly 9% of households in the Chicago metropolitan area that reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat, according to the Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Skyrocketing costs are also likely sidelining folks who would like to volunteer but can’t afford it, especially when the work requires driving.

Aliya Prescott, the director of volunteers at Nourishing Hope, which was previously called the Lakeview Pantry, said they typically see a decline in volunteers during the summer months because some people travel, but they think this year’s decline is also because of economic factors.

“We’re seeing more of economic factors due to inflation as well as rising gas prices,” Prescott said.

The toll of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and economic crises may also be causing the drop-off in volunteers.

“I think also there’s just a general fatigue of everything going on in the world, and we started to see this decline roughly in May,” Prescott said.

Still, the need for food assistance is growing. People visiting Nourishing Hope’s food programs are up by about 40% compared to last year, said Greg Trotter, the director of marketing and communications for the organization.

Nourishing Hope volunteers serve residents who are lining up for groceries during a food distribution event outside G & A Senior Residence of Eastgate Village in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Saturday morning, July 16, 2022. Formerly known as Lakeview Pantry, Nourishing Hope provides social services like food distribution, mental health resources and employment and housing assistance.

Nourishing Hope volunteers serve residents lining up for groceries during a recent food distribution event outside G & A Senior Residence of Eastgate Village in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Formerly known as Lakeview Pantry, Nourishing Hope provides social services like food distribution, mental health resources, and employment and housing assistance.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In Roseland, the Sheldon Heights Church of Christ Pantry recently served 210 people in one week when it typically has served about 175, said Eric Clark, who leads the pantry and is also a volunteer. People are allowed to come to the pantry once a month, and it has seen people come from as far as Indiana.

“Every pantry session, we typically have at least six to 10 new clients,” Clark said.

Some are worried the escalating demand for help may burden the dwindling but dedicated crew of volunteers they still have.

During the pandemic, the pantry limited the amount of volunteers to 10 to 15 people because it’s located in a small space, Clark said. But that has sometimes meant that a volunteer is helping out for eight hours a day, he said.

At the Edward G. Irvin Foundation/Woodlawn Community Food Pantry, James McMurray said he would like to have more volunteers in the pantry’s weekly rotation. In 2021, the pantry was serving about 20 to 30 people a week, but in recent weeks it has been serving about 80 people a week, McMurray said.

“If I could get somebody who is going to be on the first and second Monday and so forth, then I’m not too concerned about burning my volunteers out,” said McMurray, the chairman of the food pantry.

Kelsey Kyle, from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the agency’s number of volunteers hasn’t returned to what it was before the pandemic.

In June 2019, the Greater Chicago Food Depository had about 2,500 volunteers compared to 1,500 volunteers this past June, Kyle said. Before the pandemic, about 70% to 80% of its volunteers came to the organization through corporations, she said. The rest of the volunteers typically came from small groups, families or faith-based organizations.

“Although we are starting to see those groups creep back to us, we’re still definitely not where we would like to be and where we need to be to continue to support our neighbors, our network through our food distribution efforts,” Kyle said.

At the Pilsen Food Pantry, Evelyn Figueroa, the pantry director, said finding enough volunteers is always an issue. The pantry has partnered with community groups and area schools to develop a service-learning internship for students ranging from high school to those in graduate programs to help fill in the gaps.

At the beginning of the year, the pantry was serving an average of 300 clients a week, and that number has now increased to about 350 people a week, Figueroa said.

“Every time we figure out a way to build more capacity, we hit it,” she said. “If we are capping registration, we know that’s a problem. The worst thing is to close registration. We know people are coming that need food.”

Juan Gomez, a driver at Nourishing Hope, takes boxes of food out of a cooler while he loads a van for a recent food distribution event at Nourishing Hope’s headquarters in the West Town neighborhood.

Juan Gomez, a driver at Nourishing Hope, takes boxes of food out of a cooler while he loads a van for a recent food distribution event at Nourishing Hope’s headquarters in the West Town neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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