(Courtesy of AustinTalks)

The demand at local food banks keeps increasing.

Pastor Jody Bady of Jehovah Jireh #1 Outreach Ministry said more people are visiting the food pantry he operates.

The reasons vary. Some residents continue to be affected by layoffs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others work part-time jobs that don’t pay enough to cover their living expenses with the rising cost of food and gas. People experiencing homelessness also have been severely affected.

At Jehovah Jireh’s food pantry, located at 5116 W. Chicago Ave., residents can get free pantry items, like canned food, pasta and other nonperishable items. The pantry is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Wednesdays, the pantry also offers residents fresh produce and meat for free.

Pastor Jody, as he is known in the community, wants residents to know they can get help outside operating hours.

Longtime Austin resident Melmein visits the pantry every Wednesday.

He usually finds onions, pineapple, potatoes, corn, apples, oranges, pears and celery, among other fruits and vegetables. The meat options can include chicken nuggets or hamburger patties, but “the most important thing” are the milk and eggs, he said.

“It’s beautiful, you know, having such a large variety to choose from … it’s [enough for] a full course meal,” said Melmein, who asked that he not be fully identified because he doesn’t want people knowing he’s visiting the food pantry every week.

Jehovah Jireh also operates a mobile food pantry that visits areas where food assistance is needed most, said Austin Coming Together’s lead organizer Ethan Ramsay.

The mobile food pantry goes to hot spots or areas with high-criminal activity. Bady said he identifies these areas with help from the 15th District CAPS office. These hot spots temporarily turn into “safe havens,” the pastor said.

The pop-ups help residents like Melmein, who saw a pop-up at the corner of Madison Street and Lotus Avenue, then learned about the brick-and-mortar pantry.

Bady stocks the pantry with food he obtains from other pantries and donations. As more residents rely on his church’s food pantry, he hopes to secure a partnership with a larger food assistance organization so he can offer fresh produce and meat more than once a week.

The pantry is not the only one challenged by an increasing demand, as the Sun-Times recently reported.

Austin Coming Together supports Jehovah Jireh along with other organizations addressing food insecurity in Austin through its AustinEats initiative.

AustinEats launched at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when about 20 local mutual-aid networks, faith-based groups and nonprofits joined efforts, Ramsay said. In the summers of 2020 and 2021, the group organized free food distribution days in Austin with support from the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

AustinEats helps coordinate joint activities to reach residents who can’t travel. “We’re coming together to figure out how can we be more coordinated in how we deliver food to residents in the community,” Ramsey said.

This summer, Westside Health Authority and the Good Neighbor Campaign has been offering free lunches to children in their Kids Cafe program on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12 to 2 p.m. at 5437 W. Division St.

Other mutual aid groups and food pantries that are part of AustinEats include By the Hand Club for Kids, Bethel New Life, Hope Community Church, Beyond Hunger and Circle Urban Ministries. Other members working to increase food access include the Austin Garden Collective and Forty Acres Fresh Market.

Nina Bernacet, program manager at Beyond Hunger, said the Oak Park-based organization partners with Austin-based groups like What About Us, A House in Austin and the West Side Network Partners.

Their home delivery program helps home-bound seniors and adults with disabilities get food delivered in 12 Chicago area neighborhoods. In Austin, What About Us and other organizations that work with seniors often refer residents to the program.

“The way we look at food insecurity is actually focusing more on nutrition insecurity,” Bernacet said.

While each resident picks the food they would like to receive, Beyond Hunger includes fresh items like meat, dairy products and fresh produce to ensure people receive nutritious food.

“Most of the food we provide [is] diabetic -friendly,” Bernacet said. “There are certain foods that we just cannot remove from our grocery lists [because of client interest] … we can never remove mac and cheese from our clients as much as we want to.”

Each month, Beyond Hunger delivers about 55 pounds of food to each of the 35 Austin households they serve. Bernacet hopes to expand the program to 70 households.

As inflation continues to increase the cost of food and transportation, it becomes challenging to serve more people. At the same time, the number of people experiencing food insecurity continues to rise.

Before the pandemic, the home delivery program served about 65 households citywide. Now, it serves about 300 households, and that number will likely increase, Bernacet said.

Beyond Hunger relies on donations to buy most of the fresh food from wholesale and local vendors like Forty Acres Fresh Market. And it stocks most of its shelf items thanks to its partnership with the Chicago Greater Food Depository.

“When it comes to us helping the community, we do put a lot of care into it,” Bernacet said. “There is some food that we don’t accept at Beyond Hunger because we know that it may not meet nutritional standards that we believe people deserve.”

Beyond Hunger also operates a brick-and-mortar pantry at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., where Austin residents can get free food. The only requirements are that residents bring a photo ID and proof of address. Home-bound individuals who cannot go to the pantry can have a family member or friend pick up food on their behalf if they complete a proxy form available here.

In addition to food, residents can get help in applying for federal and state income-based benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, RTA Ride Free Permits and cash assistance.

“We recognize that you can’t just give people groceries,” Bernacet said. “You have to provide them with other services to help them, you know live a just life like they deserve.”

Other food pantries that operate in Austin can be found using the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s map directory.

Food pantries serving the West Side include:

  • Grace & Peace Church Food Pantry, 1856 N. Leclaire Ave., is open every Tuesday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), Wednesday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and Thursday (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.)
  • Circle Urban Ministries Food Pantry, 118 N. Central Ave., is open every Wednesday (9 a.m. to 11 a.m.) and Thursday (1 p.m. to 3 p.m.)
  • Hope Community Church Food Pantry, 5900 W. Iowa St., is open every Friday (12 p.m. to 2 p.m.) and Saturday (10 a.m. to 12 p.m.)
  • Beyond Hunger Food Pantry in Oak Park is open for recipients every Wednesday (3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.) and Saturday (9 a.m. to 12 p.m.). The drive-thru is at 924 Lake St. in Oak Park, and the walk-up is at 848 Lake St. in Oak Park.

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