At food banks across the Midwest, a “new reality”

Volunteers at the Chicago Food Depository sorting donations. The organization says that 1 in 8 Cook County residents will use a soup kitchen or food pantry. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

As the year comes to a close, there are indications the economy is improving. Retail sales are up, and unemployment rates are dropping. You can look at jobless rates as a statistic – or you can see it in real life terms. Changing Gears is a public media project looking at the reinvention of the Midwest. At food banks across the Midwest, though, we’re seeing that reality is getting in the way of that reinvention.

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CHICAGO – The line outside All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Ravenswood on Chicago’s North Side wraps around the corner and down the block. It’s Tuesday evening, and dozens are here for the church’s weekly soup kitchen and food pantry.

The line’s full of people you might expect to see at a pantry: grandparents with young kids in tow; a few homeless people. But the line also has quite a few people like Joanne Baier.

“I was actually a teller supervisor at a bank,” Baier said. She worked for Bank of America for seven years before they downsized, and she lost her job.

Since then, she said life has been “hard’.

Fran Holliday sees hard stories like Baier’s even more these days.

“We’re still meeting a lot of neighbors who do not have work, cannot find work, or have just lost their jobs,” said Holliday, the associate rector at the church and the program director for Ravenswood Community Services, the church’s social services arm

Talk to the people who direct food banks across the Midwest – and they say the relationship between unemployment and hunger has become even more pronounced in the past few years.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

“In the last two years our distribution has increased 50 percent,” said Anne Goodman, Executive Director of the Cleveland Food Bank. “There’s simply no way that you can interpret it in any other fashion but to say that unemployment has related directly to food distribution.”

In Detroit, Goodman’s counterpart, DeWayne Wells, said his organization, Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, has experienced a 20 percent increase in need for services this year. There’s even more demand outside the city of Detroit.

“In some of suburbs, a lot of people who were displaced by autos and whose unemployment has run out, we’re seeing much higher than those 20 percent average communities in those communities,” said Wells.

He calls them the “new poor”.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

The warehouse on Chicago's South Side is the size of five football fields. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

Most of it comes from the Chicago Food Depository on the city’s South Side. Its main warehouse is the size of five football fields. It’s full almost to the ceiling with pallets of food – boxes of cereal, crates of mayonnaise, and cartons of fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas and potatoes. Lots of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables are an important part of the food that gets sent out to pantries.

Inside, workers are busy making sure all the orders are correct.

The Chicago area has also seen about a 36 percent increase in need for services over the past three years. The trend among especially new customers is people who have never used any type of social service before.

“People call and say, ‘I know you because I used to make a donation to you. I’m calling today not to make a donation but to ask for help. I need to go to a food pantry and I don’t know where one is’,” said Kate Maehr, the Food Depository’s director.

Maehr said the nonprofit is bracing itself for a new reality of having to deal with the tens of thousands of people in the community who are not going to get jobs quickly.

The holiday dinner at the weekly soup kitchen of All Saint's Episcopal Church on Chicago's North Side.

Inside All Saints, they’re getting ready to serve Christmas dinner to food pantry recipients.

Joanne Baier – the bank teller from Ravenswood is outside. She usually just gets a bag of food and leaves, rather than stay for the meal. Baier has been out of work for two years. A year ago, she finally turned to the food pantry for help.

This Christmas is harder financially than last year for Baier and her husband. He used to have a full-time job, but now can only get part-time work at Target.

The couple is especially grateful for food pantry.

“I think it helps out a lot, so we could pay our bills and our rent,” said Baier.

Baier said she remains optimistic that she will eventually find a job. And, she’s hoping she’ll get the chance to reinvent herself in the New Year.

One Reply to “At food banks across the Midwest, a “new reality””

  1. I volunteered at All Saints’ for a couple of years and it is astounding how the number of patrons who come for dinner/groceries each week continues to rise. If you are able to donate, Ravenswood Community Services is an incredible group and you can be assured your donation will be put to great use.

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