Feeding Body and Spirit at Catholic Parishes

Reaching out to a growing number of hungry people

Natalie Garcia, right, chooses food from the shelves with the help of a volunteer at the Sister Regis Food Cupboard in Rochester, N.Y. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi)
In the shadow of what was once a functioning residency for priests, a line forms toward a door. Word has spread by now, and everyone knows the day and time to be there. They also know what to expect to receive.

This scene is a familiar one every Friday in the Little Village neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. Donna Oborski, R.N., has taken on the health and needs of Our Lady of Tepeyac parish and surrounding neighborhoods since she assumed the role as parish nurse in 2009. The parish food pantry, which opened in 1995, has been growing steadily over the years. Feeling strongly about keeping the pantry open and growing, Oborski took over its operations when she came on staff. At the time, the pantry was serving, on average, eight people during each distribution day. Now, the line has grown to an average of 74 people. “I am proud that we now have ‘one stop shopping’ for the community,” Oborski says. “They can have food, diapers, formula, clothes, and we steer them to benefit screening.”

While the work might be a small reprieve from the greater need, many parishes across the diocese are realizing the demand for such services. Halls that were once filled with religious orders are now being converted into office space for outreach services.

Peter Wawire, a young adult working at another parish-operated pantry, knows the transition well. Coming from a country that does not have food pantries, Kenya, Wawire arrived in the United States six years ago with theology already in his background. He had spent some time as a seminarian, and when he decided to no longer pursue the religious life, enrolled in the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, graduating in 2007 with a master’s degree in theology.

It was that same year that he started working at St. James parish, also located in Chicago. St. James, like Our Lady of Tepeyac, has a functioning food pantry, welcoming not only those affiliated with the church but also anyone in two local zip codes, one of which has no food pantry within its borders. Serving more than 1,500 families in 2011, and making numerous house calls to homebound seniors, St. James tries to answer the needs of its neighbors.

While Wawire spends most of his time finding resources for the pantry to continue its work, he feels a spiritual connection to his job, too. “I see this as a ministry,” Wawire says. “I am a Christian, and being a good neighbor, especially to the less fortunate, is an important part of living my Christian life.” And he isn’t alone. Noting the widespread awareness of hunger and other social issues among young adults, he adds, “Sometimes it is even easier to ask some of my friends to volunteer at the food pantry than to play soccer.”

Food deserts

This Lent, many Catholics will participate in the traditional Lenten fasting. While this practice is highly encouraged, for many across the United States, going without food is not a choice.

While the parish staff and volunteers are willing to serve, pantries like the one at St. James and those across the Chicagoland area are facing obstacles. As the demand grows for food, barriers to certain types of food have surfaced.

As with many major cities across the United States, some parts of Chicago are known food deserts. A food desert is typically classified as a defined municipal space, or neighborhood, in which there is a lack of fresh food or the grocery stores in the area don’t serve quality food, nutritious staples, like produce.

Bog Dolgan, communications director for the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) sees this dilemma regularly. GCFD works with 650 sites across the Chicago area, one of which includes the pantry at Our Lady of Tepeyac, distributing donated and purchased food to pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters, reaching more than 600,000 adults and children. Despite 69 million pounds of food distributed in 2011, Dolgan and others involved in outreach are faced with scarcity.

“Meat is among our most prized donations because it is expensive, and protein is the first thing left out when people face limited food budgets,” Dolgan notes. “We receive feedback [from clients] that they need more protein.” In fact, protein sources are so rarely donated that GCFD often buys the protein their clients need.

Other strains include the lack of access to fresh produce, something that GCFD has tried to abate beginning in 2001 through two “Producemobiles,” which park in communities located in food deserts.

“People wait for hours before the 9:30 a.m. distribution, before it’s even light out,” Dolgan says. “We serve 40 locations every month, and, on average, there are up to 200 people waiting in line.” To help stock the Producemobiles, GCFD has relied on partnerships, like the one with the Chicago International Produce Market, a massive receiving and distribution center for food coming into Chicago. What the market can’t sell or becomes too close to expiration is donated to GCFD.

Dolgan also sees schools as a valuable resource. For instance, some pantries in their network work with families and children after school, handing out a bag of fresh produce through such programs. But GCFD is also concerned about before school, too. In fact, because of its efforts, GCFD was able to work with the Chicago Public School system to introduce breakfast in elementary schools, something that Dolgan and GCFD are hoping to eventually expand to include high schools as well.

Despite the large efforts of organizations like GCFD and smaller pantries like those at St. James and Our Lady of Tepeyac, the need continues to grow, with GCFD estimating 845,910 food insecure people, those not knowing where they will find their next meal, living in Cook County alone. According to a study conducted by GCFD in September of 2011, roughly 24 percent of children in Cook County are food insecure.

But because of people like Dolgan, Oborski, and Wawire, the cause continues: one that is certainly societal but also spiritual. This Lent, many Catholics will participate in the traditional Lenten fasting. While this practice is highly encouraged, for many across the United States, going without food is not a choice. In addition to fasting, take some time to reflect on those who are forced to go without food or those who can’t afford quality food for themselves and their families.

And there are multiple ways to get involved with pantries and outreach services, both at the parish and the municipal level. Contact your local parish or do a little research online about opportunities near you. Additionally, policy aimed at meeting communities’ nutritional needs is a growing advocacy cause across the country. Research is now being conducted by the USDA and various universities to study the growing problem. Check out organizations like Bread for the World and Feeding America’s Hunger Action Center for ways to take action.

Christina Gebel

Christina Gebel is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and holds bachelor's degrees in psychology and theology from Saint Louis University, as well as a master's degree in public health from Boston University. After college, she spent two years as a full-time volunteer with Amate House in Chicago. In her free time, she enjoys writing, photography, and serving as a doula and Lamaze childbirth educator. She currently resides in Boston, working in the field of public health. Christina's area of interest is maternal and child health, as well as combining faith with health.