Common Pantry Would Like to Put Itself out of Business

By Patty Wetli | Friday, February 10, 2012

Common Pantry provides food to hundreds of neighborhood families every month. Credit: Patty Wetli

In 2008, after spending his days volunteering at Common Pantry, Chicago’s oldest continuously-operating food pantry, Scott Best would return home to proudly share with his girlfriend (now wife) how many people he had helped that day. “She would say, ‘You realize it would be better if zero people came,’” recalls Best, named the pantry’s executive director in January. “I’ve come around to that way of thinking. The fact that we have to be here is unfortunate.”

Yet as much as he’d like to put himself out of business, Best instead reports an ongoing uptick in the number of families that rely on weekly food distribution from the pantry, which serves residents who live between Lawrence and Diversey to the north and south, and Ravenswood to Kedzie from east to west. “We’re very busy and demand is going up and up,” he says.

Want a snapshot of Chicago’s continuing economic woes? In the summer of 2008, Best saw 55 to 65 families a week; by the end of 2008 into early 2009, that figure shot up to 75, which became the new normal. In July 2011, need suddenly spiked to 90 to 100 families per week and has remained near that level ever since.

“It is very scary,” says Best. “The size of this place and the way we distribute puts a capacity on how many people we can get through.”

Operating out of cramped quarters in the rear of Epiphany United Church of Christ, Common Pantry, 3744 N. Damen Ave., is already bursting at the seams, not much larger than the average condo’s combined living/dining area. (“OK, show me where you keep the rest of the food,” I asked as Best gave me the nickel tour. “This is it,” he said.)

One section, picture the aforementioned dining nook, is set up like a grocery store–shelves are stacked with food and things like toothpaste, much collected through food drives. (I mentally begged forgiveness for every can of peas and creamed corn I took to school drives in my youth.) Clients select items based on the number of points assigned to their shopping budget: A family of four, for example, would receive 30 points, enough to fill two grocery bags with items like boxed cereal (3 points), pasta (3 points) and oatmeal (a bargain at 3 packets for 1 point). In addition, everyone receives a bag of bread and a bag of produce.

Though a stark and sobering contrast to the gleaming abundance at Whole Foods, Mariano’s or even HarvesTime, “the shopping gives people a sense of pride because at least they’re able to choose some stuff,” says Best.

Adjacent to the market is a second section, picture a small-ish living room, where clients receive a load of pre-packed goods, much of which has been subsidized by the USDA and retrieved from the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD). USDA surplus has dipped 40 percent in the last year.

“We are dealing with people who are having to make choices between paying bills or buying food,” Best says. “That’s something not everybody understands.” Rather than the stereotypical homeless individual, the majority of people served by Common Pantry have suffered some sort of setback, be it the loss of a job, overwhelming medical bills, or seniors whose fixed incomes don’t stretch as far as they once did. Only a small percentage of the pantry’s clients are in chronic need of assistance, according to Best. The vast majority have simply fallen on tough times. “These are people who haven’t had to reach out before,” he says. “Sometimes people are very apologetic.”

The pantry is intended to be a stop-gap emergency food provider; individuals are only allowed to visit once a month. “We provide a robust amount,” says Best, “but it will only get you through a week.”

Executive director Scott Best in Common Pantry's shopping market section. Credit: Patty Wetli

Recognizing that hunger is often a symptom, not the underlying cause of an individual’s problems, Common Pantry is preparing to launch Common Community, a program that will link clients to additional social services. “There’s always one trigger that puts people in position to need free food,” Best explains. To that end, a part-time employee and volunteer will assist people while they wait their turn to enter the shopping market (which can only accommodate two or three people at a time), providing information on job training, housing, legal services and health care.

How Common Pantry accomplishes so much on a $64,000 budget is a wonder. “It’s a shoestring,” admits Best. Actually, it seems like less than a shoestring and more like that nubbin, the aglet, on the end of the shoelace.

Though Best’s to-do list includes beefing up grant dollars, 95 percent of his budget comes from individual donations and community fundraisers. Neighborhood organizations like Roscoe Village Neighbors, the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce, Greater Rockwell Organization (GRO) and Ravenswood Gardens Homeowners Association (RGHA) are “huge supporters”: In January, GRO and RGHA teamed up to collect 344 pounds of food. Best also has developed relationships with local businesses. “We get Starbucks pastries; Rudy’s [Bakery] in Roscoe Village–he’ll make stuff for us.”

Food drives, frequently run by schools and churches, typically flood the pantry with goods over the holiday season (hence shelves laden with canned pumpkin). “I’m solid through February,” says Best, “but after that it drops off considerably. People don’t think of hunger 12 months out of the year. It’s an educational point I try to make.” April/May and August/September are particularly lean months for the pantry, which can never stock enough pancake mix, peanut butter or tuna. Water and juice boxes, which kids can take to school, are rarely donated but much appreciated, as are cans with pull tops–not everyone has a can opener.

“We always need more people to give food, money and ideas,” says Best. He’d love, for example, to establish partnerships with community gardens and others involved in the urban agriculture movement. Thinking “very, very big picture,” Best considers himself on the forefront of a trend that’s only likely to worsen as global food supplies become more limited–that going-out-of-business wish looks increasingly like a pipe dream. “Food and food sustainability is going to be a problem for everyone, eventually.”

How to Get Involved: Common Pantry succeeds on the strength of its volunteers. People are needed on Mondays and Tuesdays to help with deliveries, stocking and sorting. The pantry is open to clients on Wednesday; volunteers assist with distribution and restocking: shifts are 1-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. “We’re very flexible,” says Best.

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