In a world of scarcity, food pantries—like the one where I work in Chicago—make room for abundance

By J.H. Palmer

Last December, I started working at a food pantry in Chicago. Like millions of other people, I’d lost my job in March 2020 and had been looking for work ever since. I’d come to expect rejection. I signed up with half a dozen job boards and responded to countless job postings. Twice I’d gotten as far as a phone interview; both times I never heard back afterward. Once I’d participated in a preliminary group interview over Zoom where the only person who spoke was the interviewer, and the situation had all the markings of a scam. Overall, my household of two was holding up: I was receiving unemployment benefits, I’d secured short-term health insurance, my husband was still working, and we were healthy.

When the posting for the food pantry job—development associate—showed up, I submitted my application so I could feel like I’d accomplished something that day. I came to the preliminary phone interview with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised when it seemed I’d made a connection with my interviewer. I came to the in-person interview the same way, and when they asked for references I became anxious for either outcome: if I didn’t get the job I’d still be unemployed; if I did get the job, after eight months of unemployment, I wasn’t sure if I could remember how to be the person who gets up every morning and goes to work.

I spent my first morning on the job registering people who were waiting in line for groceries; it was more people than I’d been around in months. I took their names, asked if they had any dietary restrictions, entered information into an electronic tablet, and distributed numbered tickets like the ones at old-style delis. This system was created in response to the pandemic—this was previously a “customer choice” pantry where clients could walk in and choose their own groceries. Now clients wait outside while volunteers pre-packed their items. The adjustment reduces people’s exposure to coronavirus and also makes the process of distribution much more efficient: people used to wait upwards of an hour to choose and pack their own groceries; now they wait fifteen or twenty minutes.

I hadn’t thought much about what kinds of people I’d see waiting in line, but I must have had some preconceptions because I was surprised at the spectrum of humanity represented: people whose first language was Russian, Croatian, or Arabic; people dressed and coiffed like they’d just emerged from a hair salon; people who were visiting for the first time, and those who’d been clients since before the pandemic hit. Distribution went from nine a.m. to noon, and there were people lined up the whole time. The numbers back up this anecdotal data: in the first nine months of 2020, the food pantry where I work served more than twice the number of clients it had served in all of 2019.

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Pre-COVID, this pantry served people who lived in Edgewater and Uptown, but since so many pantries have closed, it now serves the entire city of Chicago. It’s run by a staff of ten people and more than two hundred volunteers. All a person needs to do in order to register and receive groceries is produce identification of some kind (a piece of mail will do) and have a way to take their groceries away from the pantry. There is no income level or SNAP requirement.

The dramatic increase in clients, coupled with the new pandemic-era outdoor delivery system, has made the issue of local food insecurity more visible. Pre-pandemic, clients had been behind closed doors as they collected their groceries; now they stand outside, in full view of the public. (One regular volunteer, hoping to make the whole ordeal feel more cheerful, delivers their groceries wearing a multi-colored, sequined jacket that he found in the pantry’s free clothing closet.) The increase in clientele has been accompanied by an increase in donors, many of whom cite the lines outside the door on distribution days as what spurred them to donate.

While the increased visibility of food banks, mutual aid societies, and projects like the “love fridge”—in which a group sets up refrigerators around Chicago where people can donate or pick up food as needed—have highlighted the issue of food insecurity, the attendant shame that comes with lining up for food remains. For every client who uses the wait time in line as an opportunity to socialize with neighbors who are doing the same, there’s a client wearing dark sunglasses and a hoodie hoping not to be recognized. For some, especially those who find themselves food insecure for the first time, the shame is paralyzing; who knows how many people choose to stay home, or charge groceries to credit cards rather than be seen standing in a food line.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that he’d launched a GoFundMe campaign due to extended unemployment, and I reached out with information on where to find the closest food pantries in his area. When I followed up, I learned that he hadn’t visited any of the locations I’d suggested. I offered to bring the groceries to him, and he accepted. I can’t say for sure whether shame is a factor, but I’ve been bringing him groceries weekly ever since, and will do so until he tells me to stop.

The pantry’s van driver makes daily pickups from stores like Trader Joe’s, Mariano’s, Jewel, and Whole Foods. Some food can’t be distributed to clients due to coronavirus precautions: food is handled as minimally as possible, and with so many bulk-sized perishable items being donated it can be a challenge to get it all distributed before it goes bad. It’s hard to find a client who wants to haul a five-pound container of chicken wings home on public transportation, so items like that get heated in the staff kitchen and eaten in-house. I became accustomed to finding the odd package of feta cheese or container of fresh squeezed juice on my desk, left there for me by the operations manager. It had the effect of giving me a sense of abundance in the midst of scarcity; no matter how financially overextended I was I could count on at least one delivery a week that included fresh cut organic fruit, cold-pressed organic smoothies, and cheese that was way out of my price range.

I recently learned that the friend I’ve been delivering groceries to has been sharing them with his neighbors, so I’ve increased the amount of food that I bring him. The pantry has enough food for all of them, and it’s as easy for me to deliver two boxes as it is to deliver one. Here’s what I want people to know about rescued food like the stuff we have at the pantry: it’s there for you. I’m not sure where it originates—perhaps with grocery stores ordering more than they can sell, or with farmers who never know how much a crop will yield until it’s time to harvest, or maybe we’re just an incredibly lucky food pantry—but we’ve never turned anyone away empty handed.

One weekend I picked up a Saturday shift to make up for some hours I’d missed earlier in the week, and set to work packing groceries alongside volunteers in the warehouse. The amount and variety of food being packed up into plastic bags was remarkable: premade salads from Trader Joe’s, whole roasted chickens from Mariano’s, bags of frozen blueberries, cold cuts, Greek yogurt, PB&J sandwiches, organic strawberries, and bags of baby spinach, to name just a few. The atmosphere was convivial. Regular volunteers caught up with each other, including at least one family who’d been spending their Saturdays together this way for months, and a sense of productive fun permeated the warehouse.

That’s what I love most about working at a food pantry: there is food here, and if you need food you are welcome to it. In a world with so much restriction, it’s wonderful to know there’s one tiny space where abundance is the norm. ■

*Note: if you or someone you know needs groceries, the Greater Chicago Food Depository keeps an updated list of area pantries. Outside of Chicago, visit Feeding America’s directory of food banks.



J.H. Palmer lives and writes in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Gapers Block, The Toast, Hypertext, Story Club Magazine, Thread, and Chicago Story Press.

Cover image: Public domain image via USDA.

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