The following op-ed by our CEO, Kellie O’Connell, was originally published in the Chicago Tribune.
Every week, people line up outside of our two food pantries on Chicago’s North and West sides.
Each person carries a story of hardship and grit.
There’s the young woman who recently graduated high school, now working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet. The cancer survivor who’s unable to afford healthy food without the pantry. The laid-off airline employee who struck out on her own as a makeup artist. The drag performer and catering chef whose work and community came to a sudden halt early in the pandemic. The immigrant mother who’s trying to care for her newborn.
Coming from all over the city, encompassing a multitude of races, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations and gender identities — we consider them our neighbors. They’re your neighbors too.
As we head into another long winter, they’ll need our help more than ever.
COVID-19 cases are surging yet again. The service industries likely will suffer, which could mean a fresh wave of diminished employment. And some forms of federal assistance, including the child tax credit, are soon expiring. All of this comes at a time when we at Nourishing Hope continue to serve more than three times the number of households with children as we did before the pandemic.
It’s exhausting, right? As CEO of Nourishing Hope, one of the largest hunger relief organizations in the city, and as a single mom of a high school freshman, I’m so frustrated and saddened to be at this point. But I also feel fortunate to be in a position to help others at a time when so many are struggling.
And every day at work, I’m inspired by my staff and volunteers who, despite the many challenges, keep digging deeper to find the energy and resolve to keep going.
Certainly, Nourishing Hope is not alone in this work. We’re part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters serving the city and Cook County suburbs. That network has been tested and, ultimately, strengthened during the ongoing crisis.
The pandemic has forced many of us to change our ways to continue serving people in need. To reduce risk of transmission, we moved food distributions outside, reverting back to the old-school model of providing prepacked boxes of food. (Sadly, our distributions remain mostly outside, particularly now with the rise of the omicron variant.)
Like other hunger relief organizations, we’ve grown more nimble and creative to meet the historic need for food assistance. We expanded our online market program, which allows people to order food online for pickup. Our home delivery program serving older adults and people with disabilities has roughly doubled, now serving 800 people a month.
For a few months in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we even provided food to thousands of families out of the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. It was a surreal experience, especially for this native South Sider.
While we’re proud of the work we’ve done, we know many other food pantries and social services organizations across the city have adapted and persisted. For those on the hunt for silver linings, I’ll point you to the many collaborations between people, companies, nonprofits and government entities that never existed before the pandemic.
That’s been made possible by Chicagoans, many of them volunteers, stepping up in extraordinary ways.
As we are about to begin 2022, the challenges just keep piling up. Recently, we’ve experienced our first COVID-19-positive cases among staff at Nourishing Hope, despite all of us being vaccinated and despite our many precautions in place.
Honestly, it’s been difficult. My staff is tired. I’m tired. But here, again, we know we’re not alone. We count our blessings. Throughout the pandemic, front-line workers have contracted the virus. Many brave and generous people have died.
The hard truth: We’re not done with this crisis. We likely won’t be done with it for a long time. Once the pandemic eventually subsides, the economic repercussions will last for years.
So here’s what we’re going to do at Nourishing Hope — and we invite you to join us.
As we approach the turning of the new year, we’re going to take a few days to rest, reflect and spend time with loved ones. We’re going to laugh and sleep and recover. We might raise some glasses of bubbly to those who can’t be with us. We’ll speak our fervent hopes for a brighter future.
And then we’re going to do what Chicagoans do — we’re going to get back to work and dig even deeper to help our neighbors.
The pandemic isn’t going anywhere, it seems. Neither are we.