Founded in 1969, The Friendship Center has reimagined the food pantry experience for many Chicago residents. Thanks to a partnership award from the Endeavor Health Community Investment Fund, the nonprofit has invested in renovating its facility into a welcoming grocery store-like space stocked with fresh, wholesome foods, expanding its food-rescue program, and offering connections to social services and other resources.

Today, neighbors facing hunger can drop by the pantry to pick up everything from daily staples and pet food to a holiday turkey. “We applied to the Community Investment Fund with the vision of reimagining the space” to serve more folks, says Executive Director Justin Block. The center serves Chicago’s northwest-side neighborhoods like Albany Park, Lincoln Square, North Park, Ravenswood, and West Ridge.

During Thanksgiving 2023, The Friendship Center supported 350 families with groceries to make holiday meals. These dinners included a whole turkey, ham or — as supplies ran low — chicken, as well as the traditional sides. The pantry also offered festive events throughout the season, including special hot meals and food delivery.

Block has worked in the food nonprofit space for more than 15 years, inspired by an early experience when he was a cook between high school and college. He recalls being surprised that many of his restaurant coworkers had to take second and third jobs to make ends meet. This inspired him to dedicate himself to feeding people experiencing food insecurity and helping make life a bit easier for those in need.

Under his watch, The Friendship Center has seen a two-fold increase in people coming through its doors since the pandemic. Despite the uptick in clients, the center has prioritized continuing to make the experience of visiting the pantry feel personalized and caring. “There’s nothing more efficient to do than just hand somebody a box of food as soon as they walk in the door, right?” Block says. “But it's not really engaging.”

Instead, The Friendship Center welcomes those it serves with a bright, airy space where “shoppers” can choose the foods they like and feel connected to, often reflecting their culture.

To handle the increase in demand, Block says that The Friendship Center team is actively exploring options to scale their model. Ideas range from expanding its current location and partnering with other nonprofits to create a community hub, to building a second pantry. Block says he and The Friendship Center team are excited about the opportunity to care for more neighbors across Chicago.

Besides nourishment, the center also provides its community with connections to social services and programs. These include access to healthcare, public benefits, assistance with utilities and rent support, and more.

If you would like to support The Friendship Center’s mission, Block advises that the most helpful contribution is your time or a financial gift. “We can provide almost eight meals for someone with just $1 dollar,” he says.

Learn how to volunteer at The Friendship Center or get information on how to support the pantry.