Face of food pantry goers changing

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For the past two years Bernita Bryant has relied on a Chicago food pantry to help feed her.

For the past two years Bernita Bryant has relied on a Chicago food pantry to help feed her.

In 2008 Bryant retired as a city of Chicago employee earning $3,000 a month. However, now she lives off $1,500 a month, an amount she said disqualified her from receiving state-issued food stamps. So each Friday morning she goes to St. Ailbe Church in the Calumet Heights community on the South Side to get two bags of groceries.

“One day you’re middle-class and the next day you’re poor,” said Bryant. “It would be hard for me to eat if food pantries did not exist because food is so expensive.”

Every week the Greater Chicago Food Depository supplies food to St. Ailbe, 9047 S. Harper, and every other food pantry in Cook County, GCFD officials said. It receives donated food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But as the sour economy drags on food depository officials said that more families are looking to pantries for food. Some are people not traditionally believed to go to pantries.

“It is perceived that food pantries are heavily visited by the homeless and that is not true. At one time 20 percent of the people who visited food pantries were homeless but today it is 7 percent,” said Kate Maehr, executive director for the Food Depository. “One out of eight people in Cook County are turning to food pantries.”

The demand for food pantries is great but more pantries are not the answer, added Maehr.

“The community needs more volunteers to work at food pantries, not more food pantries to open up. Most food pantries are only open once or twice a week during the day and not in the evenings or weekends when it is more convenient for people,” she said. “As a result, a lot of people who need help do not go because of the distribution schedule (which is often based on the availability of volunteers).”

Since July, when its new fiscal year began, the GCFD distributed 32.3 million pounds of food, and in October it recorded 453,764 visits to food pantries throughout Cook County, a 59 percent increase since October 2007, according to Bob Dolgan, a spokesman for the non-profit organization.

Gerald Anderson is among the unemployed who often goes to a Chicago food pantry to make ends meet. The 53-year-old grandfather lives off $1,400 a month in unemployment benefits after being laid off in September from his $5,000 a month construction job.

“Everybody needs help. I used to be ashamed to go to a food pantry but not anymore,” Anderson explained. “I had to swallow my pride and do what was needed to help myself. I do not go every week just when I need help every now and then.”

He added that more food pantries are needed in the wake of so many people losing their jobs.

“People need help and food pantries are a great resource,” he said.

When the Defender recently visited St. Ailbe Church, there were over 100 people waiting to receive groceries. Many were seniors and most had arrived at 7 a.m. – though food was not distributed until 10 a.m.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender

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