Updated: January 17, 2014 6:15AM
What will you eat on Christmas Day?
“Rice and chicken, like at home,” the woman tells us. “Also, how do you say? Baklava?”
Suzanne Iwaz, 35, is a refugee from Iraq. She and her husband, their three children, her mother and an aunt live in a small apartment in Morton Grove. Her husband’s job as a research assistant at a hospital pays enough to cover the rent, but not much more.
Twice a month to make ends meet, Iwaz picks up groceries at the Niles Township Food Pantry in Skokie, which is where we met her on Friday morning. The food pantry puts food in her refrigerator when her husband’s check cannot, and it has even allowed the couple to save up a little money, about $100, to buy their children Christmas presents.
A good food pantry works like that, putting dignity in the bag with the corn flakes.
Skokie and Morton Grove are pretty nice suburbs, so we were surprised to learn how much business the Niles Township pantry does. More than 3,500 people from more than 2,500 households visit twice a month. In November, business was heavier, with 5,000 people served, and December is on pace with November.
We should not have been surprised. We should know by now that the problem of not knowing where your next meal will come from, sometimes called “food insecurity,” is common, though it does not reveal itself easily. In Cook County alone, some 860,000 men, women and children meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of food insecure.
At the pantry, we asked again: What will you eat on Christmas Day?
“We’ll be fine,” says Antionette McKissack, 50, who is raising two teenage sons in Skokie while attending Chicago State University full time. “We’ll go to my mom’s in the city. Everybody brings a dish.”
It’s the other days of the year, McKissack says, that food can grow scarce. She and her sons collect Social Security survivor benefits — the boys’ father died a few years ago — and receive food stamps. But without the pantry, she says, she’s not sure what they’d do.
“My boys eat. They’re big boys,” she says. “And I try to buy healthy.”
Much of the food distributed by the Niles Township pantry is provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which serves a network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, mobile programs and older adult programs. Last year, the Food Depository distributed 66 million pounds of food, the equivalent of 150,000 meals every day.
The Food Depository has corporate and government sponsors, but much of their food and money comes from caring individuals. To our thinking, it’s about as worthy a charity as you will find.
To donate, go to www.chicagosfoodbank.org or call (773) 247-3663. Or just drop a check in the mail, made out to the depository. The address is: The Greater Chicago Food Depository, 4100 W. Ann Lurie Pl., Chicago 60632.
You can also make a non-perishable food donation as part of the Depository’s “1 City 1 Food Drive” campaign. Donation boxes are all over town.
Who’s going hungry in America? In Niles Township, at least, you’d be hard pressed to say exactly. In the five years he has worked at the pantry, one of the workers, James Tassev, says he’s seen just about every kind of person come through.
“We get a lot of refugees, people from Iraq and Iran and Russia,” he says, “and people come and go. The economy is down and they lost a job.”
Tassev turns to the computer on his desk and calls up a list of recipients.
“This woman,” he says, pointing to a name. “She’s a mom with four kids and her husband has just left her.”
One morning, Tassev says, a man will come in and say, “This is my last month we’re gonna use the food pantry. I got a job.” Then later in the week, Tassev says, another man will come in and say, “I’m back. I need the pantry again.”
For about an hour on Friday, we asked everybody who visited the pantry what they would be eating on Christmas Day. We hate to think of anybody going hungry on Christmas Day.
But it was the wrong question. Almost everybody we talked to had a plan, somewhere to go, something to eat. And to make sure of that, the Niles Food Pantry is giving out hundreds of Christmas baskets with turkeys and hams.
It’s the day before Christmas, and the week after that, the stomach growls and the shelf grows bare. Long after the holiday spirit of giving wanes, the need is no less and the work of the Greater Chicago Food Depository goes on.