Feeding Hope: Pet Food Pantries Fill a Critical Need

There was a time when the Rodriquez family thought they would have to give up their pets. The Chicago family of five was struggling to make ends meet after Louis Rodriquez lost his job at a supermarket. His wife, Marta, was stretching herself thin as a housekeeper to cover the family’s monthly costs.

With three kids and only one working parent, it was becoming increasingly challenging for the Rodriquez family to care for their two dogs, Kiki and Pedro. As bills piled up and Louis continued to search for work, the couple worried that the only option would be to surrender the dogs to a shelter, a decision made extra difficult by the fact that one of their daughters has autism and relies heavily on the animals for companionship and support.

And then they found a lifeline: Care for Real.

Care for Real is a food pantry based in Edgewater. In addition to providing enough food for nearly one million meals a year for people in need, the first Thursday of every month the organization switches their focus from people to pets. Each month, Care for Real provides pet food and supplies to more than 300 pets. In 2017, more than 4,600 pets received the food and support they needed to stay with their families during times of economic unease.

For families like the Rodriquezes, the help received from the pet food pantry is the deciding force between keeping their beloved pets or having to relinquish them to a shelter. And for those involved in running the city’s various pet food pantries, the importance of providing for clients’ companion animals is right up there with the importance of providing for the clients themselves.

“Many do not understand how much clients in need suffer and how incredibly important a pet is to a household,” says Lyle Allen, Care for Real’s executive director. The organization started the pet pantry after interviewing existing clients and learning just how significant the need for pet provisions was. “We discovered that many of our clients, [particularly] seniors living alone with the exception of a furry friend, were going hungry in order to feed their pet,” Allen says.

Nearly 12% of U.S. households are food insecure. In Cook County, food insecurity rates range from as low as 1.5% to as high as 57.8%, depending on the neighborhood. And with 68% of U.S. households having one or more pets, there’s a strong overlap between pet caregivers and people who cannot always afford to put food on the table.

As animal lovers know, the joys of sharing your life with a pet often supersede economic considerations. Pet parenthood isn’t just for the rich or for people with wellpaying jobs, and the companionship and love that animals offer to their humans’ lives can make a difficult situation like food insecurity that much easier to cope with.

“The thing I hear a lot is, ‘why do [people] have an animal if they can’t afford to take care of them?’” says Marsha Niazman, volunteer at the Irving Park Community Food Pantry and manager of its Pet Food Corner, which provides clients with necessary pet food and supplies every Wednesday morning and the evening of the second Tuesday of every month. “I think they take care of their pet in the best way they can,” Niazman adds. “It might not be the finest food or the finest litter, but who else would care for them? The animal is still going to be needing food and warmth and someone to protect them.” And many times, the bond between a person and their animal is one of the main things keeping them positive in tough times.

Like Care for Real’s pet food pantry, the Pet Food Corner started because staff and volunteers witnessed a need for it. “Probably half the people who come for food for themselves also stop by the Pet Food Corner as they’re leaving and get food for their pets,” Niazman says. “Even the people who in the beginning had been saying ‘why are we giving it to the animals when we have people we need to feed?’ can see the importance. [Clients] would say, ‘I’m going to give my dog my food if I don’t have anything else to give her.’ They realized how important it was to have pet food available for people.”

Bolstering up the city’s pet food pantries are relationships with animal rescues and organizations. Care for Real’s Pet Food Pantry is the result of a partnership with the Bark Bark Club, a doggie daycare and grooming facility located in Edgewater. Irving Park Community Food Pantry’s Pet Food Corner is in part supported by the Community Animal Rescue Effort (C.A.R.E.) in Evanston. Other local pet food pantries are run directly by animal rescue groups, including PAWS Chicago’s Emergency Pet Food Bank and Nina’s Pet Food Pantry, run by Young at Heart Senior Pet Rescue.

The strong ties between pet food pantries and other organizations—many of them rescues—highlights the importance of caring for our city’s animals at all times, not just when they’re in need of a home. It’s part and parcel of ensuring Chicago’s pets have what they need to live a good life and stay in their homes, and a way to honor all that animals do for people.

The goal is to keep families and their pets together and to keep pets out of the shelter for reasons related to food insecurity. And even in a strong economy where some pantries are seeing less need, there are always plenty of animals who can benefit.

“There’s never not someone who needs it,” Niazman says. If the pantry has a surplus, it goes to people caring for feral cats and stray dogs, or to rescues.

How to Help

Pet food pantries are always accepting unopened, unexpired dog and cat food, as well as general pet supplies like toys, leashes, and litter, and food for other types of animals (right now Irving Park Community Food Pantry’s Pet Food Corner is focusing on stocking up on bird food after noticing a need). Some pantries also accept opened or recently expired food, but check a pantry’s guidelines before dropping any off.

In the Chicagoland area? Here’s where you can drop off your donations. Some locations also accept donations through Amazon.com wishlists—which means you can order and have items delivered from the comfort of your own home.

Editor’s Note: Call first before stopping by—some locations only accept donations on certain days/times.

6224 S Wabash Ave, Chicago

5421 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago
Bark Bark Club, 5943 N Broadway Ave, Chicago
773.769.6182 (773.878.7233 for Bark Bark Club location)

2733 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago

3801 N Keeler Ave, Chicago

Central Bark Doggy Daycare, 256 Commerce Dr, Grayslake

3516 W 26th St, Chicago

2410 W Lunt Ave, Chicago

7225 N Western Ave, Chicago
773.262.4000 x. 101

Program collects donations for distribution at Our House of Hope Pet Food Pantry and other locations.

To locate other mainstream pantries that accept pet food donations, visit ChicagosFoodBank.org or Direct2Food.org.

Not in Chicago? Simply Google “Pet Food Pantry” + your zip code to find a donation/ distribution center near you.

Resources are available. If you and your pets are in need of assistance or know of somebody who is, contact any of the facilities to find out how they can help.

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