Common Pantry opens its first standalone location in 56-year history

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Common Pantry, Chicago’s oldest continuous food pantry, has opened its first standalone location in the organization’s 56-year history.

The new facility in the North Center neighborhood at 3908 N. Lincoln Ave. continues Common Pantry’s efforts to provide emergency food and social services to Chicago’s North Side.

“This celebration not only marks the milestone of opening this new building and our ability to provide more services more efficiently, but it is a celebration of the community that helped make this dream a reality,” said Margaret O’Conor, executive director of Common Pantry.

The grand opening of the pantry is Thursday, though Common Pantry has been assisting people in the new location since Aug. 2 after leaving the old location on Aug. 1.

The new space allows Common Pantry to better serve guests and expand programming, O’Conor said. The previous location was a few blocks away in a rented basement space from Epiphany United Church of Christ, 2008 W. Bradley Place.

The new facility, which was formerly Wasabi Cafe, has a large communal and dining space, a commercial kitchen for the organization’s hot lunch program and a grocery shopping area where guests can select their own food.

“When we purchased the building, we asked our guests what was most important to them. They told us they wanted a place to shop on their own, with their own grocery carts,” O’Conor said. “They wanted a place where they could sit together and enjoy a meal in a space that is welcoming and accessible to everyone.”

Pantry staff eyed a move for years, but accessibility concerns began to arise in 2018, with guests carrying large loads of groceries downstairs. The new ground-level location is ADA accessible.

The organization partnered with the Illinois Facilities Fund, which gives grants to nonprofits, to finance the $2.6 million project. State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, helped secure $1.5 million in state grants.

Common Pantry purchased the one-story commercial building in 2021 and began construction earlier this year. The new facility is 3,500 square feet, more than double the size of the old one.

“We wanted to make a new place that was dignified and welcoming, filled with natural light, temperature controlled, and a mirror image of the way we want our guests to feel when they come to see us — welcomed and respected,” O’Conor said.

Common Pantry will be able to reach more people with emergency groceries, monthly produce distributions, hot meals every Wednesday and senior home deliveries. The organization is also improving its existing programs, including nutrition counseling and cooking classes.

The bigger location comes at a time when Common Pantry is experiencing record demand. The poverty rate nationwide in 2022 jumped to 12.4%, up from 7.8% the previous year, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We just had the most families served in the organization’s history in August when we moved in here,” O’Conor said. “That’s due to a combination of things. We’re here now in a more pedestrian friendly location, but the need is also really, really high. The actual current need is astounding.”

Common Pantry served 889 households last month, up from 595 in August 2022. Nearly a third of those families were coming to the pantry for their first time, O’Conor said.

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