Many small nonprofits like Care for Real — the 54-year-old north side food pantry where I work — receive most of their support during the holiday season. Nearly half of Care for Real’s revenue comes in November and December. Every year, I am overwhelmed by our community’s remarkable generosity that helps neighbors access food and services. Not only is there an influx of financial support, but more volunteer groups and families are eager to spread holiday cheer. Volunteers sort through mountains of in-kind donations that come in daily from local collection drives; families making closet space for the gifts they received; and the Marie Kondo-inspired folks who are resolving to tidy up in the new year.
I love opening check after check during the “season of giving.” December is truly the most wonderful time of the year to be a fundraiser! But food insecurity doesn’t have a season. Hunger is a persistent problem all year for one in five households in the Chicago area according to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Nationally, 17 million households did not know where their next meal would come from in 2022. As inflation slows in some categories, food prices remain high. The Department of Agriculture found that food prices were 3% higher this fall than in 2022. HelloFresh conducted a report on food insecurity, finding that 72% of respondents feel the economy is creating a food insecurity crisis. Households living at or below the poverty line are forced to make tough decisions about where to spend limited resources.
“Food prices are outrageous. This sure helps me out a lot. At the end of the month, I have $6 in my account. I could not afford food. I need you,” said a Care for Real Client.
“I work to pay the rent, that’s literally all it covers, and I still don’t qualify for a Link card (SNAP benefits). I feel bad having to come here because I always thought food pantries were for people who didn’t work. Thank you for making me feel welcome,” another Client said.
Care for Real’s service numbers confirm the pervasiveness of the issue. We saw an average of 3,723 monthly food pantry visits in 2023, peaking at 4,602 visits in October. Just when we think we have surpassed a record number of food pantry visits in a single day, we beat it. In June 2023, we served 306 families in four hours. On the same day in 2022, we served 209 families. This November, we served 424 families in one day!
Systemic problems like hunger require a community response throughout the year. Here are a few ways you can help:
- Volunteer a few times a year at a food pantry like Care for Real.
- Host a collection drive in the spring or summer
- Become a monthly donor to sustain local food programs.
Every member of the community can take small steps to address food insecurity in their community. Everyone can do their part. Everyone can care for real.
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- 31 Best Things to Do in Chicago and the Suburbs This December 2023
Jen Kouba, MA, serves as the director of development and communications at Care for Real and as an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago. Kouba is a certified restorative justice practitioner and completed instructor training with The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. She is an alumna of the Vincentian Lay Missionaries and volunteers with Best Buddies Illinois and EZRA Multi-Service Center. She is deeply committed to serving her community, lifelong learning, and creating more good wherever she can.