Every Tuesday an expansive hallway on the second floor of the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago gets transformed into a food pantry like you’ve never seen before. One wall is lined with tables overflowing with a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, canned goods, eggs, and meat. When was the last time you saw a food pantry with three meat options?! It’s common practice for food pantries to provide preassembled packages of food for their recipients. Due to the immense number of volunteers at Jesse Brown however, there is a sufficient crew to run the pantry similar to a grocery store. As they walk down the hallway, the veterans get to choose what they want, minimizing waste of unwanted goods as well as bringing dignity into the process. The food is provided in collaboration by the Food Depository, AmeriCorps, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Any veteran, whether homeless or housed, can shop at the pantry once a month. The goal of the pantry is to serve 150 veterans a week but this number is often exceeded. This model has successfully been replicated at Edward Hines VA Hospital, also serving the Chicago area, and VA’s across the nation are looking to duplicate this system in the near future.
I am an Elks scholar, having received scholarships from the Elks National Foundation in 2012 when I began college at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’ve been working at the Elks National Veterans Service Commission as a fellow for the past few months on the Welcome Home initiative, aimed at helping end veteran homelessness. Jenna, the other Elks scholar turned fellow, and I have been having a blast at Jesse Brown these past few weeks. Many of the volunteers we work with are veterans themselves, choosing to serve other veterans in need. Others come from the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, or simply choose to volunteer on their own. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie and jokes are cracked nonstop. The day flies by as we act as personal shoppers for veterans, snatching their food off the tables and thanking them for their service. This Veterans Day, November 11th, will mark the 3rd anniversary since the food pantry at Jesse Brown VA has been open. In this time, nearly 5,000 unique veterans have been served, along with nearly 13,000 unique household members.
Call Volunteer Services at your local VA to see how you can get involved and give back to veterans in your community! This has been an extremely fun and rewarding experience and I would highly recommend volunteering at your VA!