JEFFERSON PARK — Morning weather in the single digits didn’t stop dozens of volunteers from waking up early and giving away hundreds of groceries to Far Northwest Side families Tuesday.
It was the first distribution event at New Hope Community Food Pantry‘s location inside the Branch Community Church, 6125 W. Foster Ave. The pantry moved from its previous location in Norwood Park over the holidays and reopened this week.
The pantry’s leaders welcomed the community with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a tour of the facility. The pantry started in 2004.
“I got the meat,” yelled volunteer Mike Lennon as a driver pulled up to the curb of North Moody and West Foster avenues.
“I got the eggs,” yelled back David Davies, another volunteer.
In matching leopard jackets, the two loaded the driver’s car full of grocery bags with meat, produce, dairy products and non-perishable items.
Davies, who lives in Edison Park and has volunteered at the pantry for about seven years, said the new location is better for the group because it’s a single level, has a parking lot and is close to a bus stop.
“At the old location, we had to go up and down stairs constantly … carrying all of those bags, that was a real workload,” he said.
Davies is looking forward to helping out more folks on Mondays and Tuesdays. He said being part of the volunteer crew is a fun way to give back to the community.
“My favorite part is helping people out and also all the volunteers are great people,” Davies said. “Before we had COVID, we used to have summer parties and Christmas parties.”
Davies usually arrives around 7:30 a.m. on giveaway days and volunteers until the afternoon, helping to unload food trucks, organizing grocery bags and loading items during curbside pickup. They can be long, strenuous hours — but it’s worth it, he said.
The pantry’s larger home will open up possibilities to partner with local agencies to host job training classes and SNAP counseling, and to offer other resources to its clients, said Joe Kerke, New Hope’s board president.
“There are a lot of great people in the community doing great things,” Kerke said. “We don’t have to work in silos; we can work together and what this space offers is that.”
Food pantries saw an increase in need citywide because of the pandemic — and that need is still high at New Hope, Kerke said. Clients continue to sign up for help, which makes Kerke “glad and humbled to serve.”
With more than 80 volunteers, including 20 who work on site for grocery pickups and bag organizing, New Hope launched a delivery program at the start of the pandemic to help residents who were homebound, were sick or who did not feel comfortable leaving their house.
The program has completed 2,000 deliveries, increasing the pantry’s business by about 30 percent, said Kerke, who delivers food to residents in the evenings.
“It’s been part of our evolution as a pantry,” Kerke said. “It’s not just food we provide but … it’s cliché, but it’s the hope, especially during the pandemic, when we felt like we lost that community. We remained opened and that was a pretty proud thing.”
Prior to the pandemic, New Hope operated similar to a grocery store: Clients were able to pick and choose what foods they wanted and interact more with the volunteers. But because of COVID-19, the pantry pivoted to offering only curbside pickup to limit people in the building.
Pantry leaders hope that in the near future, the shopping experience that was integral to New Hope’s history and values can return. It fuels the dignity that volunteers want to uphold for clients, said Donna Oberhardt, New Hope Community Food Pantry director .
“It sounds like such a little thing, but going into the refrigerators and picking out your own milk instead of having someone hand it to you … that’s something I would really like to see,” Oberhardt said. “I want to give them as much dignity as they possibly can have in the situation they are in.”
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