As thousands of Chicagoans scramble this weekend for that must-have gift for the Holidays, thousands more will be scrambling for something a bit more critical.
The government estimates one in six residents of Cook County are "food insecure," meaning basically that they do not know from where their next meal is coming. Among children, the number is 1 in 5. And in some neighborhoods, it is almost 50/50.
"Over the last five years, we have seen a surge in demand," said Kate Maehr, the CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. "An 85 percent increase in the number of people showing up at food pantries in Cook County."
The Depository serves more than 800,000 Cook County residents through a network of food pantries, soup kitchens, and after school feeding programs. The agency operates on an annual budget of about $26 million.
Maehr said the stereotypical image of the hungry as homeless individuals with no visible means of support is often far from the truth. Rather, she said, her agency serves many families, many where both parents are working but struggling to make ends meet.
"They are working hard," she says. "They are good neighbors. But they don’t have enough to eat."
On Friday, shortly after the Depository’s food truck showed up at First Christian Church in Maywood, hundreds of customers turned out for the free fruits and vegetables. Many had been waiting in the cold for the doors to open.
"It means I’ll be able to eat for the holidays," said Janine Hall, clutching bags of broccoli, carrots, and fruit. "I won’t go hungry and me and my family won’t go hungry. And it means a lot."
Fellow shopper Melinda Briggity said unforeseen circumstances had brought her to the Maywood pantry.
"We had a little fire at our house and we were in need and these people are always so very very nice," she said. "They are a Godsend."
At the agency’s cavernous headquarters near Midway International Airport, forklifts drive up and down towering aisles stacked high with pallets of canned goods and other foods. Giant refrigerators keep fruits, meat, and eggs cool, along with surplus food donated by area restaurants. A sprawling loading dock welcomes daily shipments of food which are sorted and sent back out to sister agencies. Volunteers from throughout Chicagoland help pack the boxes and bags.
Back at the Maywood Church, as clients toting bags of food disappeared into the neighborhood, pastor Curtis Malone spoke of the need.
"We are up to 300 people that we serve every month," he said. "And those numbers are climbing."
His wife Carolyn, who helped organize the Church’s food bank, said while they operate every third Friday of the month, the doors could be open weekly.
"They come here believing we are going to make a difference in their lives," she said. "And that’s why we’re here."