ILLINOIS MEDICAL DISTRICT — Nearly 200 veterans waited patiently at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center Monday for what most people consider a basic human right, "food."
On Veterans Day, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, working with the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and AmeriCorps, cut the ribbon unveiling a unique food pantry built to serve those who served. The pantry expects to provide food for 800 veterans per month.
"It’s never okay for anybody to go hungry. We believe that food is a basic human right, but it's particularly not okay if you have served this country," said Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
"This is a day that traditionally we have in this country taken a moment to reflect on what the men and women who have served in the military have given and what that means for us as a country," Maehr said. "I think it's really important that when we have that reflection we also talk about the reality that sometimes doesn’t get talked about."
Maehr was talking about the thousands of veterans in the community who are suffering from hunger along with poverty, homelessness and mental health issues.
Maehr said the depository came up with the idea to launch one of the nation's only food pantries for veterans after participating in Veteran Stand Downs, an event offering services for homeless veterans. She said the event made depository officials ask "What more can we do?"
"There was so much need," she said.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) was greeted warmly Monday by her fellow veterans at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. The Iraq war veteran embraced the "innovative solution to a problem we shouldn't have."
"I’m so proud of what we’re doing today but I'm also sad. I’m sad that our veterans would have need for a food pantry," Duckworth said.
In an emotional speech before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Duckworth told the story of her own father serving in three wars, losing his job and almost becoming homeless.
"We ended up losing a three-bedroom house and ended up in one of those little walk-up motels with one little room," a place shared by four family members, she said.
"I was hungry," Duckworth said. "We were hungry a lot of days and there was not a food pantry anywhere near us that we could get to. So, if it were not for food stamps, school lunch and school breakfast programs, there were a lot of days I wouldn't have eaten."
"No veteran should face this and no veteran should have to watch his family be hungry," Duckworth said. "We’re starting here. We’re going to get them fed. We’re going to get them the food that they need."
David Rogers, 65, called the pantry a "godsend" for fellow veterans and their families. He believed the food pantry could especially help supplement families suffering from reduced government benefits.
"We're so grateful. It goes a long way. Especially on Veterans Day to know that our service is appreciated," Rogers said.
The East Garfield Park resident, who served in the military during the 1960s, was not only thankful for the food, but for the volunteers helping serve the veterans.
"It lets us know that individuals care and sometimes that's all a person needs to know," Rogers said. "You can get a discount mattress any day. But to put a plan into action and show that you care, like these people are doing today — that truly matters."
"This is true soul food. Some wounds are definitely being healed today for sure," Rogers said.
The pantry is located on the second floor of the Damen Pavilion in the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave. It will be open every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.