"We are a two-income household and even with our jobs we are still using up everything," said Nikkitta Johnson during a recent visit to his local food pantry, Breakthrough Urban Ministries' Fresh Market in East Garfield Park.
Johnson is a graphic designer and his girlfriend of six years, Iris Dickinson, works in customer service. Like many in the area, they live paycheck to paycheck. This was mostly manageable until food prices skyrocketed, inflation rose, and crucial pandemic-era public assistance programs such as SNAP were rolled back in recent months. Wages are simply not keeping up. "It has been pretty stressful, I'm not going to lie," said Dickinson. "We've had a lot of car troubles on top of a lot of normal life household troubles."
Last year marked the Garfield Park couple’s first trip to a food pantry. Many working households are in the same boat. "The pandemic and inflation have shown us a little different dynamic when it comes to food insecurity," said Wendy Daniels, associate director of food services for the Breakthrough Urban Ministries' Fresh Market, one of the Food Depository's network partners. In recent months she has seen an increase in the number of working households coming to the pantry. Johnson and Dickinson have noticed the shift as well. “I used to always think that pantries were for older people and big families, but these days I see people my age,” Johnson said.
Though the couple’s recent car repairs caused a financial strain, they were vital. There aren’t many grocery stores in the area, which means having a working vehicle is essential not just for getting to work but also for accessing food. “If you don’t have a ride, it’s really just the corner stores, gas stations and the Save-A-Lot,” said Iris. “And the corner stores don’t have the meat – just deli meat – and no produce. And when they do, the prices are double or triple the prices at grocery stores. I’m talking about bread, milk and eggs.” Breakthrough’s Daniels notes that accessibility and selection are common issues for their guests. “We have a couple of small neighborhood stores and shops but nothing significant where you can get fresh meat, fresh produce and shelf-stable goods. We are literally the only space where you can get all that in this area.”
Like most working households, Johnson and Dickinson use the pantry to supplement what they can afford at the grocery store. Dickinson enjoys cooking and has gotten creative in making the food they are able to get last. "We know what our basic needs are, and we know how to get by." During her visits to the pantry, she said she tries to pick up "anything that I can make stretch into two to three meals."
"Iris is a smart shopper," Johnson said. "She'll get a whole chicken or turkey that we won't eat all in one meal. With the leftovers, she'll chop up and we'll have turkey tacos and then a turkey stew. She makes sure we eat all that turkey!"
"I like that you shop like that," he said, addressing his partner.
For now, they are grateful that grocery shopping is possible at all, whether at the pantry or a grocery store. They are not alone. Despite promising inflation numbers, food insecurity is back to where it was during the first few months of the pandemic. In turn, more and more people are turning to food pantries like Breakthrough for help. “This pantry is everything for us,” said Dickinson, “and for this community.”