It may sound counterintuitive, but with the temperature dropping as we move toward winter, so do the number of people coming to the Forest Park Food Pantry.
Meghan Dowdle wears many hats in her work at the Howard Mohr Community Center, corner of Jackson and Desplaines. One of those roles is director of the village’s food pantry, housed in the center, a position she has held for the last three years. She said the number of people coming to the pantry in the colder months does not come close to the 50-60 who use the resource in the summer.
But the decrease in traffic is not because need is less. She said the pantry gives each person who comes in a big box of food which is quite heavy and hard to get home when sidewalks are icy and a car is not available.
Community Center Director Karen Dylewski said the boxes are heavy because they are packed with food, whose estimated value is around $40 and includes, according to Dowdle, canned vegetables, pasta, peanut butter, jelly, tuna, boxed foods and cereal or oatmeal or pancake mix.
Dowdle wishes the community center had more staff so they could deliver food to those who need it during winter months. They do make deliveries at Thanksgiving time and for the Christmas holidays, when summer day camp staff members are home from college, have access to cars, and are able to deliver boxes that include turkeys and toys for children. She also gave a shout-out to Forest Park firefighters who pack the boxes to be delivered.
Members of St. John Lutheran Church are a main source of food for the pantry, not just during the holidays but year-round. Rev. Leonard Payton, St. John’s pastor, said his congregation’s food collection is very low tech. “We hand out bags on the second Sunday of the month, our people bring them full of food to worship on the third Sunday, and the community center picks the food up the next day.
“The St. John people have done this every month as long as I can remember,” Payton added, “without any fanfare. My very rough guess is that they probably gather somewhere between $5,000 and $9,000 worth of food every year.”
“We probably would not be open,” said Dowdle, “if it weren’t for St. John.”
A large check is received from the CROP Hunger Walk every year. This year’s check will be for $3,425, according to Ted Despotes, the CROP Walk treasurer, who also lives in Forest Park.
Other Forest Parkers help in smaller ways. One lady drops off a package of hot dogs after her monthly shopping excursion and a pantry volunteer gets bread from Panera that otherwise would be thrown out. Ed’s Way keeps a food pantry collection basket in the store in which shoppers can deposit food items in addition to giving a large discount for the turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Forest Park resident Tom Reich volunteers at the St. Stanislaw Kostka Soup Kitchen near Division and Ashland in Chicago, which receives food deliveries twice a month from the Chicago Food Depository. “Since we’re not a food pantry but a soup kitchen,” he said, “there are times when there are surplus food items that we do not use in our meal preparation, so I bring them over to our food pantry.”
Dylewski noted that the Forest Park Food Pantry doesn’t just give out food. “We take first-timers aside,” she explained. “If they need food, they might need other services like a SNAP card or medical attention. Many are embarrassed or they need to vent. I always give them a hug. I tell them to keep their chins up and everything will be all right.”
“I don’t refer to the people who come in as ‘clients,'” Dowdle said. “They have names. I know a lot them and they know me. It’s hard to walk in anywhere and ask for help. They are often embarrassed or afraid of being turned down. I’m usually the one they see when they first walk in. When it’s their first time, sometimes I have to break down a barrier like pride, but once they start talking with me they’re usually fine. When they walk in that door I want them to be comfortable with me.”
Dowdle tries to treat each person who comes in for help as an individual, even to the extent of not pre-packing the food boxes, which would be more efficient but would not address the specific needs of each person.
Age ranges, said Dowdle, “from couples in their 20s to a single male who is 89. Every story is different. Some have lost their jobs. Others are going through a rough spot. One person had their car break down and just needed food for that one month because the car repairs were expensive. We have seniors who have no family around to help them and an older professor who got laid off and can’t find work because everyone says he’s over qualified.”
For more information or to volunteer to deliver food during the holidays, call Meghan Dowdle at the Howard Mohr Community Center (7640 Jackson Blvd.), 708-771-7736 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.