The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t only posing a risk of getting sick, it’s also pushing people to the brink of hunger.
Across the area, some people have been struggling to provide food for themselves and their families. While this has been going on for a while, the pandemic has really exhausted some people’s financial circumstances which leaves them in frightening situations.
“Nobody wants to come to a food pantry,” said Michele Zurakowski, executive director at Beyond Hunger. “For some people, it’s the last resort.”
Beyond Hunger, 848 Lake St. in Oak Park (gobeyondhunger.org), and other food pantries across the area are reeling from the impacts of high unemployment and the future uncertainty of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Zurakowski said could have an enormous impact if further relief isn’t provided.
“The CARES Act that Congress provided has been very helpful,” Zurakowski said. “Among the things that it included was that it extended unemployment benefits, which really helped people.”
While the CARES Act is providing some immediate relief to those who need it, it’s not certain how long it will be continued. President Donald Trump aims at continuing $400 weekly unemployment benefits, but it’s not known if everyone will qualify for those benefits this time around or exactly where that money will come from, since part of the total is supposed to come from individual states
“We are preparing for what we see as an avalanche of help that will be needed if the benefits don’t proceed forward,” she said.
Food pantries in Brookfield are dealing with the same situation. Aida Gatch, who leads the St. Barbara Food Pantry, 9300 47th St. in Brookfield, has her hands full helping people in need.
“We only have four volunteers compared to 12, because they can’t social distance,” Gatch said. “What I’m afraid of is the winter. In the winter I can’t open my doors and let people in. I don’t know what kind of outcome we are going to have if we have a bad winter.”
Gatch said the food pantry normally serves around 50 families, but that number has tripled to 150 families because people are coming from farther distances.
The St. Barbara Food Pantry (hgaparish.org/en/community-outreach/food-pantry) is open every Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but clients must make an appointment to pick up food. Donations are also accepted on Mondays but donors are asked to call ahead before dropping off items.
St. Barbara Medical Lending Closet, which operates out of the same site, is open by appointment only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Linda Dumas, a board member of Share Food Share Love Food Pantry (sharefoodsharelove.com), located in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church at 3801 Madison Ave. in Brookfield, has said that they have seen an uptick in demand for the food pantry’s services.
“We have seen an increase in the amount of people who are seeking food and we don’t expect that to go down anytime soon,” she said. “We saw an increase of about 35 to 50 percent of people seeking help.”
According to the food pantry’s website, it’s open on Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. It serves residents Brookfield, Hodgkins, LaGrange Park, Lyons, McCook, North Riverside and Riverside.
Since mid-March the pantry has distributed pre-packaged bags of food. They’re also asking clients to park their vehicles either behind the building or on the street and wait for a pantry volunteer to serve them.
Despite the challenges faced by the pandemic, Dumas said she wants to ensure that people know that it’s OK if they need to reach out for a little extra help.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people that are embarrassed that they need help, but we want to help everyone and let them know that it’s OK,” Dumas said.
Zurakowski said that another challenge that Beyond Hunger faces is to make sure that undocumented immigrants are able to access their goods and services.
“If you’re an undocumented immigrant, you can’t qualify for food stamps,” she said. “Many undocumented immigrants avoid food pantries in fear that the authorities will collect data about people seeking help.”
Although it hasn’t been easy, Zurakowski said the community has united and stepped up to volunteer.
“People are being really incredible,” she said. “It’s been gratifying to see the community come together. The individual people have been amazing, but hunger is a systemic problem.”
Sarah Corbin, communications director at Beyond Hunger, said that they are always grateful for a donation.
“Just $1 allows us to provide three meals,” Corbin said. “Because of the pandemic we recently asked for our community’s help specifically in securing canned vegetables, soups and meat meals like ravioli or beef stew.”
Corbin said Beyond Hunger has seen a stark increase in individuals seeking assistance from their services.
“We actually have seen a 268-percent increase in first-time visitors to the food pantry,” she said.
Despite the uncertainties that the future presents, she said that she’s grateful for the help that the community is providing.
“We know that our community will continue to be here to help those in need,” she said. “We will always be open. And through individuals and partnerships, we know that we will help end hunger.”
Karen Dylewski, director of Forest Park’s Howard Mohr Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd., said that the Forest Park Food Pantry is being helped by Ed’s Way Food Mart, 946 Beloit Ave. in Forest Park.
“Ed’s Way in Forest Park has a basket in front of their store that gets filled weekly by residents, and we pick up the food on Mondays,” she said. “People also buy gift certificates, and Ed’s Way passes them on to us so we can distribute them to residents who need them. This is a great way to help our residents in need to buy stuff they might need that the food pantry does not have.”
The food pantry is located inside the community center, but it’s closed to the public. Residents of Forest Park can call 24 hours in advance (708-771-7737) and schedule a pickup time. Food pantry staff will come outside and bring a bag of food.
The service is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“I can’t thank this village enough for everything they do to help their neighbors,” Dylewski said.