Residents that have been classically defined as solidly suburban middle class are the biggest group of new users at the Niles Township Food Pantry.
The long-term unemployed or those forced to take lower-wage positions after being cast out of well-paying jobs, or have lost homes to foreclosure, have dramatically swelled the ranks of pantry patrons with the peak demand for food necessities still ahead December.
“We’re seeing anywhere from 40 to 50 new families per month, easily, using the pantry,” said manager Cynthia Carranza, who works in an annex building behind Niles Township’s administration building at 5225 W. Main St. in Skokie.
As a comparison, the Northfield Township Food Pantry increased from 630 families in August to 652 in September, compared to one or two families per month in more prosperous times.
"There are no more lines in the sand. No more classes, no more lines. It’s equal. There’s no particular race, religion, color or creed. No particular class that’s coming here."
“Twenty [new] families would be a slow month for us,” said Carranza, who started at the pantry in late 2006. “I got in right when everything broke. After the end of 2007, that was [the start of heavy demand].”
Nationwide, 45 percent of the estimated 50 million Americans who are considered food insecure, or have trouble getting enough to eat at times, are ineligible for food stamps because their income exceeds the eligibility limit in their state, according to Feeding America.
More than 4,300 served at peak
Last December, the pantry served 1,841 households, totaling 4,358 individuals. In August, the pantry served 1,296 households, totaling 3,411 individuals.
That amount is increasing again.
“This past December was unbelievable,” Carranza said. “People were so needy. It’s still climbing. It will continue to climb for the next couple of months. People need that extra help for the holidays.”
Need for the pantry is now cutting across what used to be class lines. Lower-class and working-class patrons are now being joined by the increasingly hammered middle class.
“There are no more lines in the sand,” Carranza said. “No more classes, no more lines. It’s equal. There’s no particular race, religion, color or creed. No particular class that’s coming here. We have an increase of first-time users who have never used a food pantry. It’s an even playing field.
“What’s sad is these are all people who had great jobs, who never used a food pantry. They lost their jobs; a lot of people lost their homes. The sad part is they waited until their unemployment ran out to even break down and come to the food pantry. I wish they had come when they were still on unemployment. They’re struggling with so many things. This would have been a small way of relieving their burden. That was less they would have to spend at the grocery store.”
Constant flow of pantry users
The pace of customers coming into the pantry is constant compared to cyclical teams each month in the past.
“There kind of was a flow, a pattern,” Carranza said. “For the first two weeks [of each month], it was pretty busy. The third week is kind of slowed down. Now there’s no flow. It’s busy, busy, busy. We may have a day where we’re not as busy – it may be weather-related. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. A day might not start out so busy, but by 1 o’clock, we’re so swamped.”
At busiest times, the wait for service at the pantry still should be no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, Carranza said.
The pantry provides about a week’s worth of staples needed for meals to fill in the gaps when economically battered families cannot afford to fill their carts at conventional grocery stores.
“It is helping to feed people [in their entirety]. We’re getting more nutritious foods, like more produce. That’s the goal of the Greater Chicago Food Depository [a supplier of the Niles and most other municipally-backed pantries], and our goals as well, for 30 percent of everybody’s diet to come from fresh produce.”
The pantry accepts donations of both non-perishable and perishable foods. But Carranza said donators should check expiration dates when they collect extra foods. Food with expired dates will not be accepted.
Also desired foods are baby food, diapers, pet food, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap and razors.
“If you can’t afford food, you can’t afford a lot of things,” Carranza said.
The pantry can be reached at 847/983-0073. Business hours are 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Individuals registering for the pantry need a legal identification card.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.