Julia Vega lines up every week at the Little Village food distribution center of the New Life Centers with a collapsible grocery cart by her side.
The Little Village resident is one of more than 30,000 people who rely on the centre’s free groceries each week. She relies on dry products, fresh produce, milk and other items to feed her family, and she shares some of them with her neighbors.
“Pan De Vida is a miracle and helps many people who have no job or their health,” said Vega, 47.
Pan De Vida was providing food to around 100 families a week before the coronavirus pandemic. Today, around 6,000 families receive free groceries each week, said Matt DeMateo, executive director of the nonprofit New Life Centers of Chicagoland, which plans to open a full-time food distribution center in the city. during the first half of 2022. be an extension of its Pan De Vida pantry program that serves Little Village and other neighboring neighborhoods.
For over a year, people collected their free groceries every Tuesday and Friday, either through the drive-thru and walk-in service offered by New Life centers, which also offers youth mentoring, sports programs. and other educational and community activities.
As the need for food increased with the pandemic, the size and scope of the Little Village distribution site on South Lawndale Avenue and West 27th Street also increased.
Little Village has been hit hard by COVID-19 and the resulting unemployment in the early months of the pandemic. South Lawndale, the community area that includes Little Village, has been one of the hardest hit in the city, according to the City of Chicago’s COVID-19 Community vulnerability index.
The Greater Chicago Food Depot prioritized 40 Cook County communities with high levels of food insecurity at the start of the pandemic. South Lawndale is still listed as a high priority.
“The rate of food insecurity across the county is around 12%,” said Kate Maehr, executive director and general manager of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “In South Lawndale, we have a rate of food insecurity at 42%. It’s amazing and it’s a densely populated community. ”
The growth of the New Life Centers Little Village pantry is the result of its community connections, a partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and the acquisition of Gela’s Fruteria, a convenience store across from the denominational church. non-profit.
When the pandemic limited walk-in traffic in Gela’s Fruteria, the store’s longtime owner decided to sell.
“Gela gave us the keys and said, ‘Use’ em until I sell,” DeMateo said.
The New Life Centers used the space to open a drive-thru service where people could pull their cars around the corner and get their grocery trunks filled.
It was such a success that New Life Centers and its partners raised nearly $ 500,000 to purchase and renovate the building in an agreement finalized in September 2020.
The first floor of the distribution center at 2701 S. Lawndale Ave. will have a market where people can shop for free. The second floor will include offices and a technology center with internet access and other resources for the community, DeMateo said.
New Life Centers says it has fed around two million people through its seven food distribution sites in Albany Park, Brighton Park, Humboldt Park, Little Village and Midway. Many of them operate once a month. The Little Village drive-thru will continue to operate twice a week alongside the new distribution center.
“We’re sort of debating what that will look like, how long we’ll continue driving services because we’ll have walk-in services,” DeMateo said.
New Life Centers’ Little Village location is one of the highest volume distribution sites in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of more than 700 pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.
“They have helped us transform the way we think about the work we do,” Maehr said.
As the news of Pan De Vida spread, residents of neighboring neighborhoods began to introduce themselves.
“It has increased enormously,” said Diana Franco, the administrative coordinator of the pantry. “Every day we have new people and they keep coming. ”
DeMateo hopes the market will also drive grocery recipients to other services offered by New Life Centers.
“If food can bless a family and bring it in, what else does it need? ” he said.