By Winnie Hsu
With the tension between Ukraine and Russia rising, inflation continues to impact food prices. It is making food insecurity even worse, adding pressure on top of the cold winter and COVID-19.
Northwestern Settlement is one of the food pantries in Chicago that provides free food to residents in need. With the help from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes food to around 700 food pantries in Chicago city and the suburbs, these food pantries continue to support their neighbors through the challenges.
DEB BORRE: And that, and that one, and then that. We have dish soap today, do you need that?
NARRATION: CHICAGO RESIDENTS PICK UP FREE ITEMS AT A FOOD PANTRY. EGGS, SOUP AND CANNED BEANS ARE ALL FREE HERE – AT THE NORTHWESTERN SETTLEMENT HOUSE.
YASMIN RODRIGUEZ: Settlement House has been here for about 130 years. It is one of the longest opening settlement houses. We don’t necessarily call people coming to the settlement house as clients. We refer to them as neighbors, since we really do feel that we are a neighbor to them. Just like back in the day, you would knock on the door, and say, “I am making a cake and I need some sugar. Could you share that?”
ZENDAIDA: And it’s a really big help.
BORRE: But you go through a lot, right? We eat it everyday.
NEIGHBOR: Oh yeah, that’s right.
NARRATION: JUST LIKE THE SAYING GOES, A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED. SAME GOES WITH NEIGHBORS.
BORRE: I will check the neighbors in when they come to pick up their food. And it’s a choice pantry so they get to come in and help through. I just helped them pick out their items, load their bags and get to their cars. Sometimes I offer help for recipe tips.
NARRATION: DANIEL IS ONE OF THE HUNDREDS OF CHICAGO CITIZENS STRUGGLING WITH HUNGER AND FOOD INSECURITY.
DANIEL: With the pandemic, it felt difficult, for employment. I was already having issues with employment and emotional, mental health issues, and going back to work at that time wasn’t easy. Having the food and being able to stay on my own without exacerbating and making the problem worse was really helpful. That’s why I come, and everyone has been very nice.
NARRATION: FOOD INSECURITY IN CHICAGO HAS BEEN AN ISSUE SINCE PRE-PANDEMIC. BUT COVID AND THE OMICRON VARIANT HAVE MADE IT WORSE.
MEGAN BENNETT: COVID and the economic crisis that COVID’s caused has impacted hunger not only in Cook County but across the country. We are still in the midst of the crisis.
RODRIGUEZ: So pre-pandemic, we are averaging about 70-75 a week. Right now, 150.
NARRATION: AND THE CRISIS IS COMPOUNDED BY INFLATION AND THE COLD WINTER.
BENNETT: We are talking about inflation causes higher prices in food. We are talking about recent omicron surging, things like that. Cold weather even before pandemic is always a big worry in food and households, which we refer to as “heat or eat.” Some people make that choice between whether they are going to heat their homes or have food on the table.
RODRIGUEZ: Prices in the grocery stores are a definitely big contributor to our families coming in and needing more services. For example, pre-pandemic families and individuals can come twice a month, but now they can come once a week.
NARRATION: THE ISSUE IS NOT JUST ABOUT THE INCREASE IN DEMAND. SUPPLY CHAIN DISRUPTION ALSO IMPACTS ORGANIZATIONS THAT PROVIDE FOOD TO FOOD PANTRIES ACROSS THE CITY AND SUBURBS IN CHICAGO.
BENNETT: Last year, we distributed the equivalent of 97.5 million meals. We’re still expecting to do big work and big distribution numbers in the following years. In terms of supply chain, that has caused additional stress. We are having to spend more on food. Last year we spent double on food prices or food purchasing, but we can keep up with the demand because of the influx of support and donation.
NARRATION: FOR DEB, WHO COMES IN CONSISTENTLY ON WEDNESDAYS, THE NEIGHBORS WHO VISIT THE PANTRIES HAVE BECOME PART OF HER FAMILY.
BORRE: So you get to know the people who come to pick up on Wednesdays. And it’s just lovely. You get to know a little about their lives, especially now that we are walking through the pantry with them. They talk about their families and what they are doing with the holidays. It is really great, it feels that you have this extended family that you get to reconnect with every Wednesdays, which has been very wonderful.
BORRE: People will ask questions all the time about, you know, do you see people taking advantage of the program or everything? And I’m like, this is the kind of information that people have and preconceived notions about services like this that are just totally not true.
NARRATION: AND THAT’S WHY FOOD PANTRIES ARE IMPORTANT,
NEIGHBOR: It was good. I like fish, I like chicken.
DANIEL: The food that I got was…I was able to keep myself fully full and not feeling hungry, and I was grateful for that.
NARRATION: AND THEY PROVIDE NOT ONLY FOOD …
RODRIGUEZ: I think that no one wakes up in the morning wanting to go to a food pantry. It’s not something that people dream of doing, it’s something that they have to do because they do not have enough food.
NARRATION: … BUT ALSO A COMMUNITY AND SENSE OF SAFETY TO THOSE WHO ARE IN NEED.
IN CHICAGO, WINNIE HSU, MEDILL REPORTS
Winnie Hsu is a Video and Broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @winnieuu0316.