Chicago's emergency food pantries and soup kitchens are gearing up for a busy winter, thanks to spiraling unemployment and food costs.
With the unemployment rate in Cook County currently topping at 7.6 percent—up from 5.4 percent last year—and the country's economic future shaky at best, the city's numerous food programs are nervously watching their budgets.
"Everything is going to get tighter," says Chris Ramsey, operations manager at Cornerstone Community Outreach, a Christian-based shelter and pantry on city's North Side.
Cornerstone's shelter can house and feed 300 families a month, and is already full.
The service feeds another 1,000 individuals fed at the weekly soup kitchen.
Ramsey says he's not worried about securing enough food, which Cornerstone receives from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Department of Human Services.
But he is concerned about dealing with rising demand for shelter spots.
While many programs are supported by the state or the Food Depository, other shelters and pantries rely mainly on private funding.
For example, the Lakeview Pantry on North Broadway receives most of their donations from individuals, officials say, with some grants from corporate sources such as Kraft Foods and the Chicago Cubs franchise.
"We've set ourselves up to weather some storms," says Gary Garland, executive director at Lakeview. Garland, whose pantry raises funds though hunger walks and Cubs-related events.
Soup kitchen and public pantry organizers say they are concerned about a lack of funding for their services in the future.
"We are constantly applying for grants," says Daniel T. Gibbons, executive director of the Anti-Hunger Federation, and it is uncertain whether the current economic slump will force the giving arm of donors to retract.
The Anti-Hunger Federation receives funding and food donations from FEMA, the Chicago Department of Human Services, and private organizations such as Sara Lee Foundation. The federation, in turn, supplies 153 anti-hunger agencies throughout Greater Chicago with fresh produce.
The Anti-Hunger Federation saw an 18 percent increase in demand in last two years, and expects upwards of a 20 percent increase this year.
"I'm sure our demand will be higher," says Gibbons.
The leaders of one anti-hunger group say they aren't concerned with meeting increased need. Members of the Chicago chapter of Food Not Bombs collects food from supermarkets like Whole Foods before it is expires and is thrown out or compacted.
On a recent warm Saturday afternoon in Humboldt Park, Food Not Bombs members distributed produce, bread and canned goods to the poor.
The small gathering, made up mostly of families, lingered around the site with their hands full of food, and not a penny spent.
"So much is diverted as waste that I don't see us running out of food anytime soon," says volunteer Elena Davis. "If you'll remember, even in the '30s (during the Great Depression) people were throwing away huge cartons of produce just because it was cheaper than feeding the hungry."
Those in need of food assistance or interested in volunteering can call the Illinois Hunger Coalition's Hunger Hotline at 1-800-359-2163 for information about Chicago's emergency food shelters.