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Friendship Center Welcomes Justin Block as Executive Director

Northside food pantry continues its evolution in supporting food-insecure neighbors

CHICAGO, IL – September 15, 2021 Due to rising demand for its services and concerns about food waste amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Friendship Center – a food pantry serving the Albany Park, Lincoln Square, North Park, Ravenswood and West Ridge neighborhoods of Chicago – is hiring an Executive Director to help provide more food to neighbors in need. Effective October 11, 2021, Justin Block will guide the nonprofit in meeting the local demand for charitable food assistance and other vital resources. 

For years, Block worked at Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, leading Supply Chain, Data and Technology teams, and oversaw the development of MealConnect, a food donation platform that recently eclipsed the 3 billion pounds mark. He has also held positions at Shorebank and Urban Partnership Bank, community development financial institutions active in commercial and consumer lending in the undercapitalized south and west sides of Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. Transitioning to the role from his current Friendship Center board member capacity, Block holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Texas at Austin.    

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to improve the lives of the food insecure folks on Chicago’s North side,” Block says. “I’ve lived in Albany Park for about a decade and am eager to create a better experience for my neighbors facing hunger.” 

The hire comes at a time when the coronavirus Delta variant prolongs the economic downturn for many Chicagoans. “Last year we saw an unprecedented number of visitors,” remarks Ted Helwig, Friendship Center Board Chair. “We feel strongly that building our leadership team at this critical time is the right thing to do.” Even with a solid connection to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, expanding the Friendship Center’s local partnerships will ensure it is able to grow to meet the need. Block will be developing and implementing a multiyear organizational strategy with a focus on making meaningful progress in reducing food insecurity for the community. 

For more information on the Friendship Center, visit friendshipcenterchicago.org

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Press Contact

Greta Bailey at greta@friendshipcenterchicago.org or 773.907.6388

About the Friendship Center

Founded in 1969, the Friendship Center is a non-sectarian, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization providing groceries for 2,000 people every month for residents of the Albany Park, Lincoln Square, North Park, Ravenswood and West Ridge neighborhoods of Chicago. The food pantry is accessible four days a week and a hot meal service is provided Thursday evenings. A pet food pantry is hosted once per month and home delivery service is available for seniors and other individuals who are homebound. The Friendship Center also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people we serve; educates the public about the problem of hunger; and improves access to resources that protect people from going hungry. Visit friendshipcenterchicago.org, or find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

It’s Official: Our Sign Is Here!

Two years after moving into our new home on Lawrence Avenue, we finally have the sign to prove it!

This building, with its kitchen and storage space, has been instrumental in helping us navigate these challenging times. A new sign finally makes it feel like home.

Thanks to TFA Signs for the design and install and the 40th Ward office for its assistance in navigating city bureaucracy … Come by and check out our new look!

New Friends! Michelle, Susan & Mike

Every few months we’ll introduce you to some of the people whose efforts are at the heart of the Friendship Center’s work and community engagement.

Photo of Friendship Center board member and volunteer Michelle Cahoon
Michelle Cahoon

Michelle Cahoon has been a volunteer at the Friendship Center since July 2019 after spending 30+ years in the financial services industry as the CFO of an investment management firm and a certified public accountant.

She has been a long-time financial supporter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository due to her strong belief that no one should go hungry and becoming a regular volunteer at the pantry was a top goal after her retirement.

Michelle joined the board in April 2021 and brings both her hands-on knowledge from volunteering as well as her financial skills to that role. Michelle enjoys food, wine and travel and has been an avid Blackhawks fan since before their recent Stanley Cup wins.

Photo of Friendship Center board member and volunteer Susan Casey
Susan Casey

Susan Casey joined the Friendship Center board in April 2021 and helps with Saturday food deliveries to seniors. She has lived in the North Park community with her family for over 20 years, where she’s enjoyed volunteer leadership roles in the local community association and a local school.

As a program manager for the environmental nonprofit Seven Generations Ahead, Susan helps K-12 schools reduce waste. She was a middle school science teacher prior to that. Susan looks forward to contributing her nonprofit, education, and community-building experience to the work and mission of the Friendship Center.

If you recently saw the Friendship Center in the Chicago Tribune, FOX-32, or WTTW, then you were looking at the handiwork of our PR guru/volunteer Mike Roach (pictured above, holding the Trib op-ed by Friendship Center volunteer Jaime Freedman). After 20+ years making news for national brands including Budweiser, Harley-Davidson, KFC, and Snickers, Mike launched his own agency to help entrepreneurs, nonprofits and small businesses elevate their storytelling.

Mike loves visiting farmers markets with his wife, Katie, and daughter, Ella. In fact, it was at the Ravenswood Farmers Market where he first found out about our food pantry and got involved. We became his first pro bono client! You can follow Mike’s travels to markets around the world via his Instagram feed @AtTheFarmersMarket.

“There are so many unsung pantry volunteers doing such amazing things, it’s humbling to be able to help tell their story,” Mike said. “I just hope this media attention inspires other professionals in the neighborhood — be they accountants, plumbers, painters or social media gurus — to join me in donating some of their time and talent to support this important work.”

Hot Meals To-Go

Over the last year, our Thursday hot-meal dinner program has doubled in numbers — even as our dining room remains closed due to COVID and all meals are served to go. Ross Outten, above, has been stirring a lot of pots!

We now serve 75 to 85 people every week from 6 to 8 p.m. Every person who drops in receives a hot, nutritious meal and a bag full of RTE (ready-to-eat) snack foods.

We feature a changing variety of donated ingredients from local garden plots and nearby restaurants that enable us to serve global flavors representing the cultures and nationalities that make our community so vibrant.

Prior to COVID, clients were served in a dining area and conversation flowed along with the food. We’re not there yet, but we still aim to provide more than just a meal.

Delivering For Our Seniors

Last year around this time, we started getting calls from partners like our local ward offices and Swedish Hospital, asking if we could help get groceries to seniors and other homebound people in our area. Networks of friends and other community supports that were strained by COVID-19 left many households unable to get the food they needed. We took down a few names and addresses, and started reaching out to our volunteers for help making deliveries.

One of our first clients was Bill North. Recently home from surgery, barely able to walk, and afraid to go out to the store, he called 40th Ward Community Engagement Coordinator Lisa Bowden, who reached out to the Friendship Center.

We now serve 11 seniors in his building, and more than three dozen other regular clients around the neighborhood. We also brought groceries to seniors in Humboldt Park for several months while their local pantry director was stuck at home in recovery and had to suspend operations.

The senior delivery program was a “build the airplane while it’s flying” kind of effort — such has been required of so many in our food systems and community resource centers over the past year. We’ve learned a lot and grown in the process, and plan to continue to develop our capacity for delivery where it is needed.

New Pantry Friends on the Southside

Friendship Center volunteer Bonnie Tawse (above, with her friend Elizabeth) got involved with the Free Street Theater because of her son, Sam, and when the pandemic hit, they launched a pop-up pantry (or, as they call it, an “alt-pantry”) at the Storyfront Theater location in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

They are working hard to reach underserved communities in their area with an innovative approach and a lot of grassroots energy, but they don’t have the same access to bulk food resources as we do.

Because of our committed network of supporters, sometimes we actually have a surplus of certain grocery items. When this happens, we “resource-share” with neighboring food pantries to make sure nothing goes to waste. In this case, we were able to send items to a part of the city that really needed the help, and support them as they build and grow their own much-needed food pantry.