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Nearly 800,000 people go hungry in Cook County, new study says

by Elle Metz
Apr 24, 2014

Soup Kitchen

Elle Metz/MEDILL

Soup kitchen coordinator Stefano Redaelli chats with a guest (not pictured) while serving breakfast on Wednesday morning.

Soup Kitchen 2

Elle Metz/MEDILL

Volunteer Joy Pan serves food to a soup kitchen guest. The kitchen feeds between 80-130 people each morning, said Redaelli.

Soup Kitchen 3

Elle Metz/MEDILL

Soup kitchen guests choose from a number of food options. "We want them also to choose because it's the only place they can choose," said Redaelli.

It’s 7:25 a.m. Wednesday and people already cluster on the steps of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Lincoln Park. Although it’s sunny, they are bundled against the chill and wind. Some have all their possessions resting on the concrete next to them.

The doors to the church soup kitchen wouldn’t open until 8 a.m. when volunteers serve breakfast to between 80 and 130 people. Just as they do every Monday through Saturday morning.

Nearly 800,000 people are going hungry in Cook County, including one in every five children, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study released this month.

“It’s sobering,” said Paul Morello, public relations coordinator at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “I think a lot of people are shocked by that statistic.”

Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, releases a Map the Meal Gap study annually and this most recent report reflects data from 2012.

Wednesday at St. Vincent de Paul, soup kitchen coordinator Stefano Redaelli and his volunteers assembled trays of homemade sandwiches, soup, applesauce and dessert. They handed out tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Meanwhile, the kitchen’s guests ate at round tables and chatted with one another. As the volunteers serve, they interact with the guests.

“I am the one who gets reached,” said Redaelli. The kitchen is “so rich, not economically, but with humanity.”

Cook County is fourth on the list of counties with the highest number of food-insecure individuals, trailing Los Angeles, New York and Harris County in Houston.

The study defines people who are food insecure as those with “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

This means access not only to enough food but also to sufficiently nutritious food.

“We have a huge emphasis on healthy food,” Morello said. One-third of the food that the Greater Chicago Food Depository distributes annually is fresh produce, he said.

The depository, which oversees 650 food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, distributes 150,000 pounds of food a day throughout the Chicago area.

According to the study, the major causes of food insecurity are increasing poverty and unemployment and decreasing home ownership. Even the employed are suffering. Between 2011 and 2012, the unemployment rate for all U.S. counties decreased but the poverty rate rose.

The people who visit the soup kitchen have “different stories – getting divorced or losing a job,” said Redaelli.

Families can be particularly vulnerable. More than 255,000 children in Cook County are going hungry.

Morello said he sees a lot of families with children while working at area food pantries.

“Especially coming off of this winter, they need to provide food for their children or they need to pay their utility bills,” he said.

Both Morello and Redaelli welcomed help.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository and its affiliates wouldn’t be able to operate without some 20,000 volunteers in the area, Morello said. Donations are also welcome. Those interested can call the depository’s main line at (773) 247-3663 or visit its website

People who would like to help at St. Vincent de Paul can visit the church’s outreach page.

“We accept everything because everything is a gift,” said Redaelli.