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Food pantries prepare to help struggling south suburban families with holiday meals – Chicago Tribune

As higher food prices continue to deliver a blow to budgets, organizations battling food insecurity are gearing up to help struggling families with meals this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

One in four households with children in the Chicago metropolitan area face hunger as the winter holiday season approaches, said Man-Yee Lee, spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The depository, which provides food through 700 partners across Cook County including food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in the south suburbs, began preparations in the first quarter of this year.

“Between inflation, rising food prices, supply chain issues … the avian flu outbreak, we anticipated we might face some shortages, not just us but the whole food industry,” Lee said. “We put in our orders for large-sized turkeys, sweet potatoes, the usual fixings in February instead of April to make sure we had enough.”

She said they also stocked up on large whole chickens, which some people prefer.

Through its partner network, the food depository expects to distribute 2.75 million holiday meals this year, up from 2.67 million meals last year, and the network has spent almost $1 million more than what it normally spends on traditional holiday food items due to higher prices, Lee said.

The higher prices have caused more people to seek help throughout this year, said representatives from pantries in the south suburbs.

“Oh my God. Our numbers have gone up considerably,” said Annie Hill coordinator at Oak Forest-based VKMI Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry.

The pantry previously was open only on Fridays but added Thursdays this year, and was seeing “maybe 15 or 20 people,” Hill said. “Now our numbers are at 40 to 50. One week we had about 60 people come through on Thursday, and that is a day we added.”

The pantry also sees 60 or 70 people on Fridays.

“Last year, we were averaging 45 or 50,” she said. “We are serving more families, more singles, more seniors. Across the board, the increase is there.”

Those who rely on the pantry say the price of everything has gone up and that it’s hard to make ends meet, Hill said.

“People are making decisions about whether they should pay this bill or whether they should buy groceries,” she said. “They come to the pantry and they get stuff they normally couldn’t afford to buy right now in the grocery store.”

Lee said amid higher food prices pantries report seeing working people, some working two to three jobs, who still can’t make ends meet. This includes two-income households where they can’t make things stretch anymore, Lee said.

Larry Pettis setting up tables with food for distribution at the VKMI Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry.

Last year, the VKMI Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry provided about 250 families in the south suburbs with food to prepare Thanksgiving meals, Hill said.

“This year it will probably be the same number if not more,” she said.

The pantry will distribute Thanksgiving food starting at 10:30 am Saturday while supplies last, she said. Pre-registration is not required.

Besides getting food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, pantry representatives say they also get food from grocery retailers and support from other businesses and organizations.

At Restoration Ministries in Harvey, the pantry distributed roughly 180 “love baskets” at both Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, said Karen Vrdolyak, vice president of development & administration.

This year they will surpass that, Vrdolyak said.

On Saturday, roughly 240 families came to the pantry to get food, she said.

“They all said if it wasn’t for our pantry they wouldn’t have enough food,” Vrdolyak said. “They said prices are so high for eggs, meat.”

Restoration Ministries will distribute its Thanksgiving meal food to individuals already registered at its pantry from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm Saturday.

Living Grace Church in Lynwood, which has operated a food pantry for many years, is partnering with businesses, residents and school districts to host a communitywide food drive to assist families this Thanksgiving, said its pastor, the Rev. Philip France.

It expects to provide Thanksgiving baskets to as many as 400 families this year from roughly a half a dozen school districts. Students from Memorial Junior High School at Lansing and Sandridge Elementary District 172 in Lynwood will volunteer to help package up the food at the church Friday, said France.

The students won’t just provide needed labor. There’s a greater purpose.

“We’re really trying to teach them service,” said France. “A lot of them come home to meals and they have no appreciation that many people are struggling, and so we’re trying to help them understand the role they can play through service.”

Food will be distributed at Living Grace Church to preregistered families from 10 am to noon Saturday.

France said Thanksgiving food baskets, which cost $75 per basket to assemble, include a frozen turkey, green beans, boxed macaroni and cheese, corn, cornbread, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, chicken broth and stuffing mix.

According to the Farm Bureau, last year the average price of a Thanksgiving feast for a family of 10 was $53.31.

Food pantry operators say they welcome donations of food, including nonperishable items and canned goods that aren’t expired or aren’t approaching expiration. Some are also accepting donations from frozen turkeys.

Monetary contributions are particularly helpful because they allow pantries to buy what they need most. With financial contributions, the Greater Chicago Food Depository can buy three times the amount of food compared to that bought by the average person, said Lee.

“We have purchasing power because we buy in bulk,” she said.

Volunteers at the VKMI Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry load clients cars with food boxes.

For those able to give, they stressed people need help not just during the holidays, but all year round. In fiscal year 2022, the food depository distributed nearly 92.5 million pounds of food across Cook County. That’s the equivalent of more than 77 million meals and represents an increase of more than 30% compared to pre-pandemic levels in Fiscal 2019, Lee said.

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As we approach the New Year, increased utility prices combined with higher food prices and overall inflation will mean “more and more households will be faced with the hard decision, do I pay the heating bill or do I eat,” Lee said. “We don’t know when the cost of food is going to stabilize. We’re fully expecting to have to respond. Any help we can get would be wonderful.”

If you or someone you know needs food assistance during the holiday season or throughout the year or if you would like to provide support through donations or volunteering, here are contacts for more information:

Greater Chicago Food Depository, www.chicagosfoodbank.org, 773-247-3663

Living Grace Church in Lynwood, www.living-grace.org, 708-895-5690

VKMI Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry in Oak Forest, [email protected], Annie Hill, 708-927-4561

Restoration Ministries at Harvey, Karen Vrdolyak, [email protected], 708-333-3370

Francine Knowles is a freelance columnist for the Daily Southtown

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