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Recession Brings Hope and Challenge to Local Food Pantry

More people are going to Chicago area food pantries and shelters because of the stagnant economy, but many food pantries and shelters can not help because they lack funds.

Lakeview Pantry Logo

Since the recession, Lakeview Pantry, located at 3831 North Broadway Street, has seen major increases in clients, as well as volunteers.

Erin Stephens, director of volunteers at the pantry, said people come to the pantry because they can not afford food.

“We’re kind of seeing that type of tightening where people have so many other obligations, whether it’s debt or just trying to keep their head above water with other bills. The food is really what gets sacrificed,” Stephens said.

Lothar Greski, community outreach manager at Lakeview Pantry, said the economy is the obvious reason for the increase.

“The economy has really driven people to us,” Greski said.

The Lakeview Pantry has seen a 25 percent increase in clients over the past three years.

Greski said many people think of Lakeview as an affluent neighborhood, but are amazed to find that one in four lack food security or do not know how they will get their next meal.

Neal Mueller, director of programs and operations at North Side Housing and Supportive Services in Lakeview, said he has also seen an increase.

“We’re seeing gentlemen come to us that have skill-sets that are obsolete,” Mueller said.

Many of the pantry’s clients as well as those of North Side Housing and Supportive Services turned to the organizations when they were laid-off.

Not only have workers been impacted by the recession, but so have organizations geared to help those in need.

Stephens said Lakeview Pantry has gotten the overflow of clients from other pantries that had to close down due to state budget cuts. Luckily for Lakeview Pantry, it has a diverse pool of financial support and has been able to continue providing services to clients, said Stephens.

“We’ve been able to weather the recession pretty well,” Stephens said.

Greski said many people wrongfully assume where the pantry gets its funding.

“Everyone assumes we are driven by a government check,” Greski said.

He said much of the pantry’s funding comes from private donors and added that several local grocery stores have also helped the pantry by donating food items that normally would have been thrown out. Grocery stores in the neighborhood have also contributed by hosting food drives and by giving the pantry a grant like Walmart Express did when it moved into the neighborhood.

Although the number of people in need has gone up, the community has stepped up to help.

Stephens has worked at Lakeview Pantry for the last five years and says she had seen a shift in the volunteers at the pantry. Before the recession, Stephens said most volunteers were of retirement age, but now she has seen people from all walks of life come in and help out. Some of the volunteers, Stephens said, started donating their time to the pantry after they were laid-off and needed to get out of the house.

“I always feel like we were cheating through the recession because I have had an influx of some of the most highly trained, most highly educated [volunteers with] a great worth ethic; just these wonderful people who lost their jobs,” Stephens said.

While going through her email, Stephens said she gets multiple messages a day from people who are looking to volunteer.

Currently, Stephens said Lakeview Pantry has about 700 active volunteers.

“I’ve had this wave of people coming at me that want to volunteer,” Stephens said.

These volunteers have helped in numerous ways: unloading food, stocking shelves and delivering food to clients who can not make it to the pantry due to mental and physical disabilities.

Alan Friedman has been a volunteer at Lakeview Pantry for three years. He compared volunteering to working at a job.

“Most of the people [that volunteer here] want to be here, it’s not like a regular job,” Friedman said.

Friedman said most days he feels pretty good about the work he has done at the pantry. One moment he can recall that he helped someone was when he was walking down the street, not too far from Lakeview Pantry.

“As I was walking [to the pantry], someone asked me if I could give them some money,” Friedman recalled.

Knowing that Lakeview Pantry aids those in need, Friedman told them he did not have any money, but directed them to the pantry.

Sreya Sarkar, director of education and advocacy at Lakeview Pantry, said providing people with food is only a band-aid solution to poverty.

Sarkar is part of the pantry’s new advocacy and education program, which seeks to find more permanent solutions to hunger and poverty as well as educate the community.

Sarkar, who has been on staff at the pantry since January, said the first year of the advocacy program will focus on gathering data about poverty as well as the pantries in the community.

“For some reason, there are a lot of pantries concentrated in this area,” Sarkar said. “ So I’m guessing that it is a pocket where there is a high concentration of people who need our services.”

The ultimate goal of Lakeview Pantry, she said, is to reduce the number of people that need their services by helping them become stable though programs like Bootstraps.

“We feel if certain problems are not addressed at the very beginning they lead to bigger systemic problems,” Sarkar said.

She said the pantry must seek the deeper problems that cause poverty in order to find a solution.

“Poverty is very complex; its not just some lazy people using, gaming the system,” Sarkar said. “There are issues there, they have barriers to climb out of to fight to be up on their feet.”

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