It’s a difficult Thanksgiving this year for many families that are struggling financially or isolating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But Jennifer Peters of Chicago is determined to put together a turkey dinner for her family.
Peters lives in Old Irving Park with her two teenagers, and she lost her second job working as a restaurant worker. This year, she turned to the Lakeview Pantry headquartered at 3945 N. Sheridan Road for help with food supplies.
Without the pantry’s annual Thanksgiving food giveaway, Peters said she wouldn’t be able to provide her family the normalcy of a turkey, stuffing and sweet potato casserole.
“They really saved it this year,” said Peters, a single mom. “Because of COVID-19, you don’t have that ability to go to a friend’s house or go to family, so [Thanksgiving] would have been a lot smaller and not as nice.”
Kathryn Lyons, chief development officer of Lakeview Pantry, said the number of families in Peters’ situation has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and the pantry has organized its largest Thanksgiving distribution ever to meet the surging need.
“We anticipate twice the number of people we saw last November,” Lyons said. “We’re operating at a much higher capacity, and we’re certainly preparing more boxes.”
Chicago food pantries have been grappling with rising food insecurity all year as the pandemic has devastated the economy and left many people jobless. The national nonprofit Feeding America defines food insecurity as lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle, and the group projects Illinois to have 46% more food insecurity this year compared to 2018.
Lyons said Lakeview Pantry has been able to feed extra mouths with a record influx of springtime financial donations. She said pantry staff purchased and prepared additional turkeys, produce and canned goods to distribute outside the Lakeview headquarters and the pantry’s Avondale, Ravenswood and Humboldt Park locations.
“As the demand grows for people needing food assistance, we’ve also seen, equally, people really coming together and making donations to Lakeview Food Pantry,” Lyons said.
At the Pilsen Food Pantry at 1850 S. Throop St., additional turkeys were donated from the Greater Chicago Food Depository because of the increased demand this year. Evelyn Figueroa, the pantry’s founder and director, estimates this year’s Thanksgiving giveaway will feed 175 families, a significant uptick from the 40 turkeys that workers have usually raffled off every year.
“Things are larger than usual, the demand is much greater, but our pantry has not skipped a beat this year,” Figueroa said.
In expectation of larger food reserves, Figueroa said the staff doubled refrigeration to store supplies of russet potatoes, chickens, turkeys and string beans that are included in distribution boxes.
In addition to higher demand for free food, pantries also are dealing with how to hand out supplies in ways that don’t increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Figueroa said her pantry is limiting distribution to outside the building, like Lakeview Pantry is doing.
Lyons said that type of food pickup is not the same personal experience for some clients. And outdoor distribution will be an issue after Thanksgiving, when the temperatures drop.
“It’s different — so a client that’s used to coming inside, having a comfortable seat in a warm building, will now need to access outside,” she said. “That creates different challenges for recruiting volunteers and having staff outside, making sure people are warm.”
One pantry continues to offer indoor meals at its feeding center, and will do so on Thanksgiving.
“We follow the governor’s wishes to social distance, wear masks,” said Brian Anderson, executive director of Shepherd’s HOPE Chicago at 5732 S Lowe Ave. in Englewood. “And our job is to feed the community.”
Anderson said tables will only seat three people to achieve social distancing.
He said Thanksgiving is a tradition for some visitors, and the dinner service provides an opportunity to celebrate.
“It’s important for people to be able to eat, and enjoy a meal with their families,” Anderson said. “I have the luxury to not come to a food pantry or feeding center, but most of the people in this community don’t have that luxury.”
While it’s her first time in several years going to a food pantry to supply her Thanksgiving dinner, Peters said she’s thankful to have that option during a difficult time.
“Everyone has just really come together to really help one another,” she said. “And I’m just really grateful for all the help.”
Minju Park is a news intern for WBEZ. Follow her @meenjoo.