The volunteer-run food pantry at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, 4945 S. Dorchester Ave., is helping a steady community of guests, but organizers say the program has the capacity to serve dozens more people.
At this stage in the pandemic, volunteers are no longer packaging to-go bags for the "guests" (the pantry's own terminology); off the shelves, they have their choice of dry goods, produce, dairy and fresh meat. Parishioners and the Greater Chicago Food Depository donate the food.
Shirley Knight, the food pantry coordinator, said demand surged at the beginning of the pandemic and into last summer but then tapered off. Last December, 284 individuals and 177 families came to get food; in January, 340 individuals and 150 families came, which Cynthia Bagrowski, another volunteer, ascribed to the dispersal of federal stimulus payments.
When the food pantry first started years ago, its target population was from Cottage Grove Avenue to the lakefront. Now they are targeting everyone but only seeing around 55 people per week. First-time guests still come in all the time.
"I think it's not such a taboo anymore to know that you need food and there's some place you can go get it," Knight said. "We could easily serve 100 people, 100 families. We could easily do that. Our parishioners are really good about donating."
Karen Hamilton, a Chicago Public Schools Safe Passage worker who has been a guest at St. Paul & the Redeemer for three years, said getting food at the church helps in a number of ways.
"For one, these are things that a lot of times that I can't always get ahold of," she said. "Not only am I able to get things for myself, but I'm able to pass things on that I might not be able to use. I pass them onto my mom or people like that."
And Hamilton, who lives in Hyde Park, said she is struck by how the pantry is an exercise in the church giving back to the community as a whole. She raved about the quality of the food — fresh chicken and beef, vegetables from the church's garden. And, she said, "It comes at a time when it's gravely needed and it's gravely appreciated."
"I work, and I'm still here," she said. "It's an added help, because sometimes I don't always have the time or the resources when it comes to money, because I only work part-time. That's an other reason this helps also, because I don't always have the money to go to the grocery store to get the things I need. I've had numerous people who are working people who stand right here with me."
Volunteer Greg Papesh worked at the Hyde Park Co-op for 33 years, beginning the "Shopping for Shut-ins" program with then-general manager Howard Bowers.
"Food has been a vital part of my life," he said. "Being here is a beautiful fit now that I'm retired. And I enjoy doing what I do."
For three years, Papesh was a pantry guest. He lauded St. Paul & the Redeemer for having a weekly, not monthly, schedule. "This really worked in and helped me a great deal," he said. "I appreciated how willing and nice the volunteers were, and I knew that at some point I would want to join them. And I did."
He feels good about his volunteer work. The six to seven hours he spends on his feet help him stay fit, and he compared the other volunteers and guests to a chosen family. "This is the highlight of my week," he said.
With St. Paul & the Redeemer's soup kitchen on hiatus because of the pandemic, the food pantry has been the church's main charity. "We see a need, and we want to fulfill that need," Bagrowski said. "We want to make sure everybody is seen, and that —
Knight finished her sentence: "Nobody is made to feel less-than."
The food pantry is open on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.