Blue Cap Pantry Brings Fresh Goods to a Food Desert  

On a sunny Tuesday in March, Deborah Shirley, a caretaker living in Robbins, took a break from her daily duties to pick up groceries for her and her mother. But, unfortunately for her and her neighbors, there are no quality grocery stores within the city limits.

In addition to living in an area known as a “food desert,” Deborah was working on a tight budget. Instead of trying to stretch her dollars at the closest affordable store, she stopped at Blue Cap Pantry, a food bank serving Blue Island, Robbins and the surrounding communities each and every Tuesday. Housed in a bright, airy warehouse in Blue Cap’s building, the pantry opened last September to bring healthy food options to the region.

“It’s so nice and clean, and everybody is so friendly,” Deborah said as she picked through butternut squash and other produce.

“[My mom] enjoys seeing everything I bring back…You know, it’s kinda rough out here. You gotta go to other towns to get something fresh,” she added, walking to her car. “ I really do appreciate it. Times are really hard, and it’s just a blessing to be able to come here.”

It takes a village to open the pantry doors

The creation of the Blue Cap Pantry illustrates the power of partnerships built through United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative.

In community meetings, members of the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network agreed that issues faced by children and families in the area, like poor health and high poverty, were rooted in a lack of access to healthy foods. Creating a pantry would be a critical first step to resolving those problems.

As they began planning, the network members realized it would take a number of partners to make the pantry successful. Blue Cap offered up their space and got approvals to run the pantry, while another partner, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, agreed to provide the food and goods to stock its shelves.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity and poverty in this area,” said Pat Thies, executive director of Blue Cap, a non-profit with robust educational and workforce training programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. “The whole network thought [Blue Cap] would be a good location. There’s a school right across the street, so families could bring their kids after they pick them up or stop to get food before.”

Other community partners in the Network began to connect residents to the pantry and set up booths at its entrance to provide information about other services, including elder care, medical assistance and counseling, available to local children and families.

Together, they’re not only helping to silence the growl of hunger in Blue Island and Robbins, but building a stronger, more united community that addresses residents’ various needs.

Just like a grocery store

Unlike some pantries that offer patrons prepackaged bags, Blue Cap Pantry shoppers select their own groceries, just as they would at a store .“We wanted the pantry to have a grocery store feel,” said Regina Brown-White, the pantry’s coordinator. “And we don’t do packed bags because we want to give them something they actually want to eat.”

The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivers thousands of pounds of food each Tuesday, and Blue Cap supplements the goods with additional items, like meat and dairy, which often fly off the shelves. Seasonal food drives also help fill the need at especially busy times of the year. Last year, United Way’s annual April Food Day collection provided more than 128,000 pounds of food to south-southwest suburban pantries, including the Blue Cap Pantry.

On this Tuesday, after a large shipment arrived from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, many fresh options filled the pantry’s shelves, including red onions, cabbage, baby carrots, sweet potatoes, beans, crackers, cereals and oatmeals, canned fruits, chicken quarters, yogurt, eggs, fresh multigrain breads and more.

As an additional perk, each shopping day, Regina and her volunteers cook up a dish utilizing a few products in their last shipment, giving patrons a warm meal when they arrive. It also sends them off with ideas of how to use the products in the pantry. This day, Regina noticed they had pasta, marinara sauce and bell peppers, so she cooked up a pot of spaghetti for shoppers.

Volunteers feel the impact too

Not only do the pantry’s patrons benefit from access to free food, the pantry’s volunteers, most of whom are Blue Cap clients, also shop there and learn important life skills through their service.

Each Tuesday, they open the doors and greet patrons, stock shelves, and load groceries into shoppers’ cars. This experience prepares them for jobs in the community and teaches them management skills to use in their day to day life, like planning a budget for a shopping trip.

Keith Konsoer, a long-time resident of Blue Island, has worked at the pantry every week since it opened. “I love everything here. They’re all my friends,” he said of the other volunteers.

Across the room, Sherry Kaline, another volunteer, helped patrons select personal hygiene and household goods, like lightbulbs and rubber gloves for cleaning. Sherry especially enjoys keeping her mind busy at the pantry and working with her peers to serve the community.

“I came here and found out where my home is,” she said.

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Support Blue Cap Pantry with a donation to April Food Day 2019! Through donations of non-perishable food items, household goods and financial support, you can help more individuals and families in the south-southwest suburbs meet their most basic needs.

 

Blue Island Library Meal Program Helps Silence the Growl of Summer Hunger

On a hot July day in the south suburb of Blue Island, 16 miles from the Chicago Loop, a dozen local kids and their families trickled into the town’s quiet community library. They weren’t simply there to feed their minds with stories, but to fill their stomachs at the library’s summer lunch program.

The program, in its second year, seeks to tackle food insecurity in the community, a problem that swells in the summer months when youth don’t have access to school meals.

Kaity O’Neal, a mother of seven, learned about the program when she started working at the library. She often brings two of her kids, Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, with her to work and they utilize the meal program during the summer break. “They just absolutely love it here,” Katherine said.

Kaiah and Elisha enjoy the snacks, but they especially love the people and activities. “I meet new friends every day and I like to read Origami books,” said Kaiah.

In the 2018 season the Blue Island Library meal program was expanded to a full week of service, and in its first 20 days has served more than 300 kids. In comparison, it served it 186 meals during last year’s 8-week stint when meals were only offered two days a week.

“Blue Island and Robbins [don’t] have a major grocery store. They got rid of it maybe six years ago,” said Ashley Palomo, a United Way-AmeriCorps member, of the region’s status as a “food desert.” To address this dilemma, the program, which is one of dozens of city Summer Food Service Programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers free lunches Monday through Friday to children of all ages.

Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, eat lunch at the Blue Island Library.

With the help of Ashley and her fellow AmeriCorps member, Kassandra Esparza, the program’s expansion has helped to advance the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network’s goal to become a physically healthy community.

The Neighborhood Network, a coalition of social service providers who partner with United Way to improve the communities of Blue Island and Robbins, aims to reduce food insecurity for 15 percent of families served by the network by 2027.

On this day, a handful of kids came specifically to the Blue Island Library for the meal program, while others were visiting and stopped in out of curiosity. Gathered at tables in a wood-paneled room filled with local historical artifacts, the kids ate their lunch of chicken Caesar wraps, honeydew, cherry tomatoes and chocolate milk.

Along with their meal, they colored, listened to music and read books, which offered a welcoming break from the humidity outdoors and a chance for their parents to scour the bookshelves upstairs.

A mother of five with a baby on the way, Katherine Guzik, learned about the program while walking through the library that day. It was her first visit, and her 8-year-old Alejandra Ramirez-Guzik was hungry for an early afternoon snack between her mother’s errands.

Like a lot of the parents in the community, Katherine was delighted to learn about the program’s goal to connect kids to meals. “It’s definitely something in the area that’s helpful. If you’ve been to other libraries, a lot of people sit around because they have nowhere else to go,” Katherine said. “It’s important to fill their stomachs.”