Latinos shun food pantries, study finds

By Carlos Sadovi
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 24, 2006

A new national study shows that Latinos are less likely than other ethnic groups to seek emergency food assistance, and Chicago area food depositories say the main reason is fear.

Relief workers who help in Latino neighborhoods say many of their intended recipients are undocumented immigrants, who worry that applying to food banks or other seemingly official institutions might result in deportation.

The San Lucas United Church of Christ in Humboldt Park distributes food to about 200 families every month in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Carmen Flores-Rance, the church's council president, said some recipients balk when she asks for identification, which she said is simply an effort to make sure the food is going to people in the neighborhood.

Others shy away from large-scale distribution altogether.

"When they see people set up food boxes and giving away food they think it's a sting," Flores-Rance said.

The study Hunger in America 2006, released Thursday by America's Second Harvest Network, showed that more than 25 million Americans receive help from the group each year. The Chicago Food Depository was one of 150 local food banks that assisted in the survey.

The survey, taken last year from February to May, showed that food help is going to 10 million African-Americans and 10 million Caucasians, but only about 5 million Latinos.

The Chicago depository serves about 70,000 Latinos in the area every year, about 14 percent of the nearly 500,000 people served, said Lisa Koch, director of public policy for the depository.

She said the agency is finding that more and more people use its services as a temporary stopgap to fill a need when money runs out. Many reported that instead of food, they have spent money on heating and housing costs.

The group will use the study findings to develop programs to build trust within the community, depository spokeswoman Ruth Igoe said.

The Great Hope Family Center in the Little Village neighborhood provides food to about 100 families each month as well as meals for the 160 men, women and children who stay at its shelter.

The hardest part is getting people to have enough trust to show up the first time, Great Hope project director Isais Gonzalez said.

"Once they know they'll be OK, it's just letting them know what they need [for identification] and not to be afraid," Gonzalez said.