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Donald Hicks, a former baker, has eaten at A Just Harvest for almost 20 years.  He is one of almost a million Chicagoans who face food insecurity daily.

As demand and prices grow at community kitchens, so does worry

by Robert Andersson
Oct 25, 2012


Robert Andersson/MEDILL

Rosario Valdovinos helps prepare meals for around 200 people everyday.  She has been working in the kitchen for three decades and is motivated by the increased demand.


Robert Andersson/MEDILL

The Greater Chicago Food Depository estimates that one in every six people living in Cook County deal with hunger everyday.  Food shelters like A Just Harvest help to meet the demand for healthy food.

The line was already 15 deep when the rain stopped on Tuesday afternoon in north Chicago. Men, women and children of various ages and ethnic and racial backgrounds stood underneath the grey sky, waiting for the community kitchen's doors to open. For some, the meal they were about to receive would be their largest of the day. For others, it would be the only one they ate.

A Just Harvest, a 30-year-old community kitchen and pantry located in north Chicago, regularly serves food to more than 200 people a day.

"A third of them are homeless, a third are seniors and a third are underemployed," said David Crawford, the kitchen's director of food services. "Most of these people are just trying to get by. When a majority of your money is going towards rent, it can be hard to put food on the table."

With the economy sluggish and unemployment still high, pantries like these, experts say, are important to feeding those in need.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes food to over 400 pantries, kitchens and shelters throughout the city, estimates that one in six people in Cook County doesn't know where their next meal will come from. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey, there are more than 900,000 people in the county are living at or below poverty levels.

Rosario Valdovinos, who has worked as a chef at A Just Harvest for more than 30 years, said need has quadrupled since she began working there.

"To help people is enough for me," she said. "I am just grateful for this job, to be working. It makes me appreciate everything I have."

Dinner is served at 4:30 p.m. every day of the year, which is rare for kitchens that serve the impoverished.

"I've been coming here for 20 years," said Donald Hicks, an elderly man who volunteers and eats at the kitchen. "This is where I'm able to come and get a good meal. I don't know what I'd do for food if it weren't here."

Wendy McNew, public relations coordinator for the food depository, said groups such as hers relies heavily on donors.

"We're serving 68 percent more people now than four years ago," she said. "The need for food donations is greater than ever."

Though hunger is only one of the many problems afflicting Chicagoans, McNew is confident that, in theory, it is the simplest to end.

"The issue of hunger is different than others in that by engaging the community, by building relationships, we can actually solve it," she said.