Chicago police assist food pantry serving those in need during COVID-19 pandemic

Several officers, with the support of their commander, packed a police vehicle with food to be distributed to seniors at risk of contracting the coronavirus

Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels to close its regular food pantry to needy families, the Rev. Bob Lombardo and his staff were determined to somehow keep it going.

So while practicing social distancing, the historic Roman Catholic church on the West Side still held its weekly food giveaway on its grounds Tuesday morning, but just took it outside.

Officer Frank Johnson works with Sister Jaime Mitchell, right, and others to pack bags of food into a wagon on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Humboldt Park. (Photo/TNS)
Officer Frank Johnson works with Sister Jaime Mitchell, right, and others to pack bags of food into a wagon on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Humboldt Park. (Photo/TNS)

“You never know when something is going to prop up of this nature,” said Lombardo, clad in a University of Notre Dame stocking cap, clasping a bullhorn in yellow rubber gloves. “But when it does, you just spring into action and you adapt as you need to adapt.”

But there was another obstacle. There are many in the church’s Humboldt Park area, including seniors and those with physical disabilities, who couldn’t come to the pantry safely because they are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

So, with the help of Chicago police officers, part of the pantry went to them.

Several officers from the Harrison patrol district, with the support of their commander, Darrell Spencer, packed one of the police vehicles known as squadrols with more than 100 bags packed with food, much of which was distributed at a home for seniors in the neighborhood.

“The city and the (police) department as a whole is going through a difficult period and this neighborhood, which is one of the more challenged communities within the city as we see it, needs all the help they can get,” said Harrison district Lt. Jason Brown, one of the officers who helped pack things up.

“We’re kind of in uncharted waters,” Brown said. “I think given that, we have to take a different approach to how we police and what policing really means.”

Back at the pantry, Lombardo said the church provided food for about 300 families. At one point a line stretched around the church building, with people keeping a safe distance from each other. The church’s mission outreach center was built over the site of the former Our Lady of the Angels school, where a devastating fire killed 92 children and three nuns on Dec. 1, 1958.

Like Lombardo, some patrons at the pantry on Tuesday sported rubber gloves. Some also wore masks to cover their mouths. They grabbed shopping carts and picked out an assortment of vegetables, meats, breads, canned goods and other foods packed in plastic bags sitting on tables.

A young woman wearing a mask walked across the street carrying packaged food with a young man.

“Thank you so much!” she called to one of the pantry helpers.

Dwayne Thomas briefly waited in line outside with a cart to pick up some packaged food from one of the tables. He said he understood the risks of keeping his space in a crowd.

“Too many people and you don’t want to be bunched up,” he said. “You never know who has what.”

Sister Stephanie Baliga said the food pantry not only serves Humboldt Park, but also people from the Austin community to the west and other neighborhoods. She said the area around the church has residents who are unemployed or clinging to their jobs.

“So their income is crashed,” Baliga said. “And then all their kids are at home, obviously because they’re not at (the mission outreach center). So they lost a lot of food sources.”

“We know that the food gap is gap growing every day, that people aren’t able to get the food that they need, especially for their kids, and then the elderly who can’t leave their house,” she said. “So we’re just trying to do the best we can because we already know that’s happening to fill whatever gaps we possibly can.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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