Martha Bayne

On January 22, the Casa Catalina Basic Human Needs Center, a food pantry serving Back of the Yards and surrounding neighborhoods, celebrated its reopening after being closed for more than three months. Catholic Charities chaplain Father Gerard Kelly blessed the Ashland Avenue storefront space, rehabbed and reorganized to provide supplemental food along what’s known as a “client choice” model. Rather than receiving bags of preselected food, visitors could now fill shopping carts with groceries from the shelves of the pantry under the guidance of a volunteer “personal shopper.” The changeover had been a little rough—among other things, the rehab of the center had taken much longer than anticipated—but at the time Sister Joellen Tumas, who runs Casa Catalina, was sanguine. “I think it’s to give people more of a choice and help them feel like they have control over their lives,” she said in January. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Barely two months later, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, these careful plans, like so many others, were out the window. Clients entered one by one, some in masks, to take prepacked bags of groceries from a team of gloved volunteers. Casa Catalina usually serves as many as 200 households a week. “We opened at 12:45 and by one had seen thirty-three households,” said Tumas on March 18. “It’s in and out.” On the floor nearby, a man carefully packed every inch of a rolling suitcase with food.

Across Chicago, food pantries are scrambling to figure out how to simultaneously serve their clients, plan for increased need, and keep their staff and volunteers safe. At the food pantry at Amor de Dios United Methodist Church on 24th and Sawyer in Little Village, groceries are still being distributed every Thursday, and on other days as available. But, said pastor Ramiro Rodriguez, “We are protecting ourselves. We don’t let the community touch the food, and we only let a few people in at a time, and keep them far apart.” At the Common Pantry in North Center, food distribution has continued, but clients are no longer allowed inside the pantry. Rather, they line up outside the door of Epiphany United Church of Christ, where the pantry is housed. There too, client choice has been abandoned; gloved volunteers ferry bags of food out the door to each recipient. 

“We’ve limited all our volunteer spots so we can be six to eight feet apart from each other,” said Margaret O’Connor, executive director of the pantry. “We are trying to minimize exposure for our volunteers, because we can’t really survive without our volunteers.”  

In South Chicago—a community with far fewer resources than North Center—many food pantries attached to churches have simply closed for now, such as the ones at St. Katherine’s on South Harper, and Our Lady of Guadalupe at 91st and Brandon. Those that remain open are bracing for a surge in need. Rosemary Arias, a retired Chicago Public Schools security guard who runs the two-month-old Southeast Side of Chicago Food Pantry out of a cinderblock building formerly owned by Republic Steel, said, “The way it’s going, my numbers are increasing by leaps and bounds.” 

“We’re not seeing an urgent need right now,” said Ana Quijano, a community services coordinator with Claretian Associates, who also coordinates the South Chicago Food Network. “But we do anticipate that at the beginning of the month, when rent comes due, we’re going to have an increase.” 

Greg Trotter, spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, echoes this concern. “Lower-income families and hourly workers likely will be disproportionately affected by school closures and work stoppages,” he said. “Many people likely will experience increased financial burden and less income as a result. That could lead to increased demand on our network of partners and programs. As we saw with last year’s government shutdown, many Americans are only one paycheck away from experiencing food insecurity.”

The GCFD, one of the nation’s largest food banks, distributes food to more than 700 food pantries, shelters, kitchens, and other organizations across Cook County. But the food bank is not the only source of food for these organizations—they also rely on individual and corporate donations, and gleaning from grocery stores and farmers’ markets. They also often purchase some items from local retailers, including non-food items like disposable diapers and sanitary supplies. Some smaller independent pantries do not work through the GCFD at all, and their supply chains may be radically disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

South Chicago, Back of the Yards, Little Village, and other South Side neighborhoods such as Englewood have some of the highest concentrations of people living below the federal poverty line in the city. But according to the GCFD’s food data map, they often have fewer options for supplemental food assistance than their peers in wealthier neighborhoods like North Center.  

Like Casa Catalina and Common Pantry, pantries that remain open during the pandemic have had to make adjustments. At the Southeast Side of Chicago pantry, volunteers wear gloves, and the space is thoroughly cleaned before, during, and after food distribution. In addition, Arias has had to try to convince seniors, many of whom come every week to line up an hour before the pantry opens, to just come at 1pm, or at least wait in their cars.

The GCFD has offered guidance to its network pantries that they should not only forgo client choice, but also only offer hot meals to go, rather than in a group setting, and minimize contact between guests and staff, not just physically but in terms of time spent in conversation. While in the past it has been standard practice at many pantries to ask guests for proof of residence in the form of an ID, utility bill, or piece of mail, now such time-consuming intake has been shelved. 

“Typically, our partner agencies ask for a proof of address—some agencies have geographical boundaries—as well as some demographic information to help us better understand and meet the need in our communities,” said the GCFD’s Trotter. “People can always decline to provide personal information. We’ve further simplified the intake process because of the coronavirus. Now we only recommend asking for household size and zip code.”

Most food pantries right now are allowing anyone to come and get groceries, regardless of whether they live in the pantry’s normal service area and without logging their personal information. Still, noted Common Pantry’s O’Connor, this puts another layer of responsibility on the volunteers. “We’re only calling volunteers if they’ve been here before and if they know what they’re doing,” she said, adding that while under normal circumstances the pantry limits client visits to once a month, that’s pretty impossible to track right now. Still, to discourage hoarding, she said, “We need people on the front lines who can be like, ‘Wait, weren’t you here last week?’ ”

Hoarding is a concern for Arias as well—from another angle. When she put in her order to the GCFD the week of March 16, she said she asked for milk but none was provided, as anxious people across the city had depleted supplies with panic shopping.

Meanwhile, over at Amor de Dios, Rodriguez has foregone the GCFD’s once-a-month-per-household guideline. “We have food for every family, every week. Everyone should be able to get [food] with us.”

One spot of good news: thus far, food has not been shown to be any sort of significant vector for transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As noted in a recent comprehensive article in Serious Eats, “According to multiple health and safety organizations worldwide, including the CDC, the USDA, and the European Food Safety Authority, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has spread through food or food packaging.” People should not be frightened to go to a food pantry to pick up needed food, said Trotter, and should just practice “the basic measures advocated by health experts, including frequent hand-washing and social distancing.”

A woman named Mirella, who did not provide her last name, came to Casa Catalina on March 18 with her sixth-grade daughter. She said she had been coming to the pantry for five years. Asked if she was scared, she said, “Si, un poco.” (Yes, a little.) But, she added, she is lucky in that she still has a job, in order fulfillment for an online retailer. 

Both Casa Catalina and Amor de Dios both serve a mainly Latinx population, reflecting the neighborhoods’ demographics. Many clients work in the restaurant industry, as servers, dishwashers, line cooks, or other hourly workers. “More people are coming now because of COVID,” said Rodriguez. “Many have lost jobs now, because of the shutdown.” 

“We have a lot of new people coming through,” said Tumas. “Some of them are scared silly. Most of them—especially if they have kids in CPS—they know something’s going on. Some of the seniors….” She paused. “I don’t know.”

Getting reliable information to clients is another challenge in this already challenging field. While some food pantries have more robust networks and are able to communicate with clients via apps or social media, many smaller pantries—again, often on the South and West Sides—do not have either the human resources or the technological capacity to do so, and elderly and/or non-English-speaking clients may not be able to readily access information online.

Quijano of Claretian Associates said that in South Chicago, where Claretian manages 153 senior apartments in addition to coordinating the South Chicago Food Network, “Right now, it’s really just word of mouth. We’ve been telling our residents information about COVID and the food pantries, and I’ve been sharing with my network as well—the libraries and the local nonprofits in the neighborhood. But other than that….”

For the moment, supplies of food are not a problem—though storage is. Claretian did receive some funding from United Way to purchase nonperishable items for its senior residents, as well as gift certificates for items like milk and eggs from local grocery store First Choice Market. They’re also accepting donations of nonperishables to store in their kitchen to give to residents on an as-needed basis, but—like many social service organizations—space is at a premium, something other pantries are struggling with as well as suddenly closed restaurants seek to donate produce and other perishables. 

After Gov. Pritzker issued the March 15 edict shutting down all Illinois restaurants for eat-in service, Common Pantry received a donation of 900 pounds of produce that it scrambled to distribute before it went bad. 

“We have pretty rich bags for people right now because of all these restaurants trying to get rid of perishables,” said O’Connor. “People are being provided some pretty incredible groceries right now, but how long that’s going to last, we don’t know.” She would like to find an effective way to redistribute extra food to pantries in other parts of the city that don’t share her affluent donor base (“When we put a call out for cereal to the neighborhood, we’re going to get 300 boxes”). But, she said, they have yet to have the capacity to figure out how.

For the moment, the surplus is not a problem unique to the North Side. Amor de Dios has seen a spike in donations from a local produce wholesaler, and it has tried to move swiftly to pass along the bounty. “We are serving a poor community,” said Rodriguez. “When we have produce, we don’t hold it in our coolers—we get out in the street and give it to the community.”

On March 12, Casa Catalina received 150 corned beef dinners from a Catholic Charities fundraiser in Cicero that saw a remarkable number of no-shows. A few days later, the pantry took delivery of a load of snacks from the Auditorium Theater—hummus, crackers and cheese, and “some wonderful chocolate cookies”—intended for patrons of the Joffrey Ballet’s now-postponed Don Quixote.

Tumas, who is seventy-six years old and a sister in the order of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, has been running Casa Catalina essentially single-handedly for more than thirty years. She had surgery in January and walks with a cane. Now, from her desk in the pantry, she answers the incessantly ringing phone: “Catholic Charities, Casa Catalina, how can I help you? Necesita comida?” 

Across the room, the half-dozen volunteers—most of them seniors—keep their spirits up tossing bagged rolls to be packed into larger brown bags for clients. When one approaches Tumas with a question about substituting beef for chicken for a client—the kind of client choice that might have been a goal in other times—she is quick to lay down the law.

“Nothing gets swapped out,” she said. “That’s how it comes, take it or leave it.”

“These are hard times,” she added. “We prayed to God before we opened today.” Then she turned back to the volunteers with another directive.

“Breathe, everybody. It’s time to breathe.”

To find a nearby food pantry, soup kitchen, shelter, or food distribution center in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network, go to the GCFD’s “Find Food” page and plug in your address, intersection, or zip code. Hours may change, so make sure to call before you go. The GCFD’s benefits outreach team is also available by phone to help with applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid benefits; call (773) 247-3663. (Changes to SNAP eligibility that were to have taken effect April 1 have been put on hold for the duration of this public health emergency.) 

To volunteer, see this guide to volunteer opportunities through the GCFD or contact your neighborhood pantry. Note that some pantries are not currently open to new volunteers. Statewide volunteer opportunities to assist with food distribution and other services can be found here. The GCFD, Catholic Charities, Claretian Associates, and many individual food pantries are all seeking monetary donations; see their websites for information on how to give.

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Correction, March 24, 2020: Amor de Dios United Methodist Church is located at 24th, not 25th, and Sawyer. We regret the error.

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Martha Bayne is a managing editor of the Weekly. She last wrote about resources available to South Siders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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