Cook County food pantries report record need

Number of residents in need of food reflects high poverty numbers for 2012

January 18, 2013

(WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)
One woman showed up two hours before a pantry in Rogers Park opened Friday morning.

Chicago’s food pantries see the city’s growing hunger problem up close.

“You see people lining up before the sun rises even on these coldest days of the year, and waiting, you know, in some cases two, three, four hours,” said Bob Dolgan of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Cook County’s largest food bank.

He said in October 2012, their food pantries had more than 550,000 visits - a record number (they don’t have numbers yet for more recent months). Over five years, the organization has seen an 84 percent increase in monthly visits to its 650 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.

That’s probably because the number of people in poverty in the area is on the rise. A recent report by the Heartland Alliance found one in three people in Illinois live in or near poverty, and many of those work full-time. A lasting decline in mid-wage jobs that have been replaced by low-wage jobs since the 2009 recession is likely a factor.

“Soup kitchens are volunteer-run organizations,” Dolgan said. “They’re doing everything they can to support their communities, but when there are just more and more people at their doors, either they have to pack smaller bags or they have to look at the number of hours they’re able to operate.”

Below: A report from a food pantry line in Rogers Park



To make matters worse, the depository has been receiving less food donations. A combination of drought and lingering recession means corporations, wholesalers and distributors are giving less. Drought devastated crops across the Midwest this year, and a major produce source here ended up with far less surplus through the summer.

Most of the depository’s food supply comes from donations – and luckily, said Dolgan, individual giving has not taken the dive that corporate giving has. Still, the depository has received 3 million pounds less donated food over the last six months than the same period a year ago, a decrease of about 9 percent.

They’re making up the difference by purchasing food directly, but it’s hardly a sustainable plan. The organization’s depends on that cash to keep its basic operations afloat.

“We have a lot of trucks we need to fuel, we have thirty-nine vehicles that need to be ready and leave this facility each day,” said Dolgan. “So it’s a challenge.”

And the bottom line remains: smaller bags of food mean emptier stomachs. Reports by the Food Depository and Feeding America estimate one in six people in Cook County don’t know where their next meal will come from.

What happens if they don’t start seeing either more food, or less hungry people?

“We all have a knot in our stomach about that,” Dolgan said.