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Northern Illinois food pantries work to improve access for Spanish-speaking families

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Maria Gardner Lara
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Noemi Hernandez prepares food from Barb Food Mart in her kitchen

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Food insecurity has long been a challenge even before the pandemic. But it continues as inflation raises the price on groceries. A northern Illinois food pantry wants to improve access to food for Spanish-speaking families.

Noemi Hernandez was recently in her kitchen cooking for her son with a pinch of pride—with flavors from her native Veracruz, Mexico.

"Jitomate, cebolla, ajo, poquitos cominos para mi arroz. Y mi arroz utilize el pollo que me dieron alla en Food Barbs." Translation: "Tomato, onion, garlic, a little bit of cumin for my rice. And in my rice I use the chicken they gave me at Barb Food Mart," she said.

Her son will be heading to Champaign in the fall to start his first year in college, the first in her family to do so.

Noemi is a food service worker at DeKalb High School. When school is in session, she starts her day at serving breakfast. Then she’s on to setting up the salad bar, the nachos, the deli sandwich section and helps manage four lunch lines. She appreciates the connections she’s made with the students.

"When the students graduate, they tell me, 'We're leaving, but we are so grateful for you,'" she said. "And I would motivate them—'Hey guys, you can do it.' "That’s a real joy for me."

But during summer, Hernandez no longer receives a paycheck and she became a widow during the pandemic. Her son also turned 18, which has affected the amount of unemployment benefit she receives, making it tougher to cover her basis until she returns to work.

At Barb Food Mart she gets groceries to help her get by.

The food pantry serves families with children in the DeKalb Community School District 428, in which two-thirds of students are considered low-income, which makes them eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Frankie DiCiaccio is the operational manager of Barb Food Mart. He says they serve more than 200 families, more than double from before the pandemic.

Illness, disability, death in the family, are some of the reasons why families may seek out a food pantry, and Diciaccio said in many instances the food is a supplement, an add-on.

"If we can save them some money on the grocery bill, it's easier to pay for the increasing price of gas, for example," he said.

Barb Food Mart received a grant from the Northern Illinois Food Bank to improve their service and outreach to Latino immigrant families, where language may be a barrier.

"And we know that there's a huge Spanish speaking population in DeKalb," he said. And we see a lot of Spanish speaking families come here, but statistically it's likely that there are more families out there who could use our services but aren't. And so in addition to what can we do better to serve the families we currently have coming here, we're also trying to learn about ways to activate or reach families who aren't currently coming here."

According to the Illinois Commision to End Hunger, during the pandemic under the Trump Administration, immigrants were hesitant to use a food pantry for fear it may affect their immigration status.

Overall, the pandemic had a huge impact on the Latino community, as many served as essential workers, employed in food plants and factories, putting their lives at risk and non-citizens were not eligible for COVID-19 relief payments and in many cases left out of public assistance programs like Medicaid.

While the fear may have gone down, and COVID numbers are much lower, trust is important for organizations to have with the community to share information about services being provided.

With the grant, DiCiaccio says they can provide written Spanish materials and recruit Spanish speaking volunteers.

At first, it wasn’t easy for Hernandez to go to the food pantry.

"At times I felt embarrassed because I’d say to myself that I can work and earn money," she said. "But sometimes we don’t know what we carry in our body. I have an injured arm due to cutting so many vegetables. Therefore, I say to myself, if there is an opportunity to have food and it can help me out, well then I started to go the food mart."

When initially visiting the food pantry, she was limited to mostly can foods and dry goods stocked on shelves for anyone to grab. Until, one visit, Joey Moore, the program director helped her sign up online so she can receive milk, meat and vegetables.

Families receive an email on Sunday with an online form listing the foods available that week including the perishable items. The deadline to fill out the form is Monday. DiCiaccio says on Thursday, families can pick up a box with a number that has been assigned to them.

"Even if you didn't order online, you're welcome to still come. It's important to us that we remove as many obstacles to access as possible. And we know that people are busy. We know that sometimes you miss the order form window, right?"

The Illinois Commission on Hunger encourages organizations to use technology to make it easier for people to access information and sign up for resources, but also acknowledges that technology and the use of email may not be as accessible especially for low-income communities.

For pantry user Noemi Hernandez, she says that could mean people are left out of receiving certain foods because they do not know how to enroll online. She says more communication with step-by-step instructions would be helpful for families to enroll for food.

"If I see the directions, I can follow them," Hernandez said. "If I don’t see the directions, it's like not seeing, like having a band across my eyes."

She’ll soon be making another trip to the pantry, but it may be her last. This pantry serves families with students in the district and she’s about to be an empty nester.

But Hernandez says she still wants to spread the word to help other families sign up for food.

Find a list of food pantry times and locations in July in northern Illinois.

  • Maria Gardner Lara is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.

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A Chicago native, Maria graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield with a master's in public affairs. Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en relaciones públicas.