The Friendship Center Food Pantry to Partner with NorthShore University HealthSystem to Transform Pantry and Support More Neighbors in Need

$200,000 from NorthShore’s Community Investment Fund will accelerate strategies to serve Chicago’s food insecure at scale with respect and dignity 

[Chicago] – February 28, 2022 – The Friendship Center, a food pantry on Chicago’s northwest side, today announced receipt of $200,000 from NorthShore’s Community Investment Fund (CIF) to improve the way it serves its neighbors facing hunger by modernizing its facility and increasing mobile capacities to provide needed resources across its area neighborhoods. As one of the first to partner with NorthShore through its CIF, the organizations will work collaboratively to reduce the stigma associated with visiting a food pantry and to increase stability in the lives of those facing food insecurity. 

“Food insecurity in our communities has reached new levels because of COVID and high inflation. Unfortunately, these economic shocks will be felt for years. This investment will allow us to quickly evolve to better meet the sustained need in a number of ways,” said Justin Block, Executive Director of The Friendship Center.

NorthShore, including Swedish and Northwest Community Healthcare, selected The Friendship Center as one of seven local organizations across Lake and Cook Counties to collaborate on programs that enhance health and wellbeing, advance health equity and support local economic growth. As a prominent feature of their recently finalized merger, NorthShore and Edward-Elmhurst Health each committed $100 million, which will generate millions of dollars annually, to benefit their respective communities. 

“We all must play a greater role in environmental stewardship and The Friendship Center is on the front lines of our health sustainability efforts by supporting food insecure populations to improve overall care, quality and safety within our communities,” said Gabrielle Cummings, President, NorthShore Legacy Acute Care and Highland Park Hospital. 

The Friendship Center will use the investment to benefit the people it serves by transforming its facility into a welcoming, normalized grocery shopping experience; by increasing access to available helpful benefits, information, and services; by optimizing its onsite storage capacity; and by becoming more flexible with mobile distributions. NorthShore-Swedish and The Friendship Center currently partner to provide nutrition classes and COVID-19 vaccine awareness information to The Friendship Center clients, and to supply groceries to The Cupboard, the onsite food pantry at NorthShore-Swedish.

“Our Community Investment Fund is built on the principle that the more we connect and invest in our communities, the better we all become,” added Cummings. “We aim to be a true catalyst for change—putting our talents, unique capabilities and resources to work by collaborating with local organizations, like The Friendship Center, through creative partnerships for the benefit of our communities.” 

To learn more about NorthShore’s commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Community Investment Fund, click here

About The Friendship Center

Founded in 1969, The Friendship Center is a non-sectarian, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization providing groceries for 2,000 residents every month in the Albany Park, Lincoln Square, North Park, Ravenswood, and West Ridge neighborhoods of Chicago and Lincolnwood. The food pantry is accessible four days a week and provides a hot meal service Thursday evenings, as well as homebound grocery delivery service. The Friendship Center also hosts a pet food pantry once per month. The Friendship Center also supports programming to reduce food waste and improve food security for the people it serves; educates the public about the issue of hunger; and improves access to resources that protect people from going hungry. Visit, or find us on Facebook, Instagram or follow us on Twitter.

About NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health is a fully integrated healthcare delivery system committed to providing access to quality, vibrant, community-connected care, serving an area of more than 4.2 million residents across six northeast Illinois counties. Our more than 25,000 team members and more than 6,000 physicians aim to deliver transformative patient experiences and expert care close to home across more than 300 ambulatory locations and eight acute care hospitals – Edward (Naperville), Elmhurst, Evanston, Glenbrook (Glenview), Highland Park, Northwest Community (Arlington Heights) Skokie and Swedish (Chicago) – all recognized as Magnet hospitals for nursing excellence. Located in Naperville, Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, provides for the mental health needs of area residents. For more information, visit,, and

Current Covid Policies

Chicago lifted its mask mandate, effective Feb 28th, 2022. Key metrics the City used to track COVID-19 cases and hospital capacity since early in the pandemic have all reached the pre-defined “lower” risk category, meaning they have been in an acceptable lower risk range for a long enough time period. This is encouraging news!

Food businesses like grocery stores are now mask optional, but congregate settings like homeless shelters are still mask mandated. Many Chicagoans will continue to wear masks in public spaces for a variety of reasons, even if they are vaccinated. The Friendship Center sits somewhere in the middle, since we rely on volunteers and serve a population that may be under-vaccinated.

Taking these components into consideration, we are adopting a split policy: if you are a client, a volunteer or staff engaging with one, or in the walled-in shopping area, we request you wear a mask. If you are a volunteer or staff and serving behind that front line, masks are optional.

To further mitigate risk and create a safer space, we are partnering with both Swedish Hospital and Heartland Heath Centers to provide vaccine availability information and updated COVID facts to our clients. While the weather is still cold, it will be via flyers in grocery boxes, but as it warms up, we’ll invite those partners onsite to answer questions. We have also located 300 at-home COVID-19 test kits, soon to be made available for distribution and onsite for anyone displaying symptoms.

If community transmission rates increase or other factors dictate, we will continue to stay flexible in these policies and revise as needed. We will keep this page current so continue to check back to see if any changes have been made to our Covid policies.

Thanks again for your partnership in supporting our neighbors facing hunger!

Best regards,

Justin Block, Executive Director

Handing someone a meal today could turn into a lifetime of generosity and potential tomorrow.

As a young child, my favorite foods were a pita pocket with a slice of American cheese or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. It’s not unusual for kids to be picky eaters, but for a time in my life, these were the only choices I had.

My mother was and is an amazing, strong, and independent woman, and as a teenage mom, she did her very best at solo parenting. While we eventually rose above the poverty line with the help of family, friends, and largely my mother’s own perseverance and grit, there was a period of time where we lived on food stamps. We also spent time living in a shelter with other young women and children who did not have a place to go.

I remember a story my mother told me of one day entering a room in the shelter where toys and home goods had been donated from the community. My mom was told to choose whatever she needed, and I could pick whatever I wanted from the toys. This simple act of generosity overwhelmed my mom with tears of gratitude and joy. Someone was rooting for us. Someone cared.

Experiencing poverty and food insecurity at a young age and watching the courage of my mother to provide the best for us set the stage for my future career. Because I had received so much from the kindness of strangers, it was ingrained in me that one day I would return that favor and pass along whatever gifts I had to give.

Today I am proud to be serving on the board of The Friendship Center. My day job also brings me joy serving as Director of Development for One World Surgery, a global healthcare nonprofit that ignites the spirit of service to provide high-quality surgical and primary care to underserved patients in Honduras and the Dominican Republic through local clinical staff and international partnerships. Before joining One World Surgery I worked with Covenant World Relief and Development (CWRD), an organization that supports locally led community development projects in over 30 countries, including women’s empowerment, agriculture, and clean water initiatives. 

On my first trip to Honduras with CWRD, I was amazed by the thoughtful and sustainable way local leaders were creating nutrition programs to help mothers in rural areas grow their own healthy food and not have to depend on buying the only choices available at the roadside shops – mainly chips and soda. That road to sustainability began with one person reaching out to another with a gift that they could offer – a banana tree or a mustard seed.

Food insecurity is a topic that really hits home for me. And while each country has its own unique challenges, the US is not exempt. According to Feeding America and the USDA, more than 38 million people in the United States, including 12 million children, are food insecure. The pandemic has increased food insecurity among families with children and communities of color, who already faced hunger at much higher rates before the pandemic.*

Being able to serve on the board of The Friendship Center is a gift. Our incredible staff is dedicated to serving our clients with the utmost dignity and respect. Handing someone a meal today could turn into a lifetime of generosity and potential tomorrow. I am grateful for each staff member, volunteer, and donor who partners with The Friendship Center to bring hope to a child, a family, a community. Thank you for transforming lives, one meal at a time.


-Catherine Werner

About the Author:

Catherine Werner has served on The Friendship Center board since 2015. Catherine first connected to The Friendship Center as a volunteer while living in the Albany Park neighborhood. For more than 12 years Catherine has worked with nonprofits to end poverty, violence and inequality both nationally and globally. She and her husband, Matt, live in Chicago.

Catherine’s mother is currently a health and wellness copywriter based out of the Twin Cities and is grateful to now be able to personally donate to the Greater Boston Food Bank, another Feeding America partner who helped her and her daughter in times of need.

How The Friendship Pet Food Pantry Started

The goal is that no pets are abandoned or surrendered to shelters because they can’t be fed.

About ten years ago, several small north-side pantries were closing for various reasons. The 47th Ward Clergy Council formed an exploratory committee to determine if that activity left the community’s food insecure population without sufficient resources. I was on that committee, and as part of that process we visited a pantry, Care for Real, that was feeding hundreds of people each week. But that organization also offered a monthly pet food pantry, and I was inspired by what I saw! It was run by a lone, determined volunteer: Bark Bark Club owner Patti Colendera.

Later that year, the North Park Friendship Center was preparing to open a second location in Lincoln Square. Together with Betzi Poole, Heidi Bush approached their Board and pitched an all-volunteer group offering a monthly pet food pantry at the facility. The thinking was no one should choose who in a family goes hungry, pets included.

One year later, in 2013, The Friendship Pet Food Pantry became a reality. We secured donated storage space to hold extra inventory at Stay, a neighborhood pet hotel, and were soon awarded a grant from Banfield of 25,000 pounds of pet food. We opened our doors that month and haven’t missed a month since!

To receive pet food and supplies, only Chicago residency and proof of pet spay/neuter status are required. If needed, we offer referrals for those surgeries & have an arrangement with PAWS for a reduced rate, as well. When we have surplus pet food we can’t distribute for whatever reason, we share our bounty with other organizations – who often reciprocate. We continue to be blessed by dedicated, generous pet lovers who volunteer their time, donate food, supplies, and help raise money (especially for the always requested cat litter!) and can’t thank them enough.

It’s humbling to see what we started a decade ago has grown into something that served over 800 pets last year. Pets are beloved members of a family – I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!

-Dara Salk

About the author: Dara Salk is one of the founding volunteers of the Friendship Center Pet Food Pantry. Since launching it in 2013, she has been a driving force behind its growth, creating relationships and finding pet food to distribute across Chicago and its suburbs. A longtime community activist, Dara has also helped found Forward Chicago, been a member of Riverbank Neighbors, 47th Ward Council, Green Council, and Senior Council, and served as the community outreach director for 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar.

The Link Between Hunger and Mental Health

The first week of October is Mental Health Awareness Week, and as we work to improve access to food in our community, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how hunger and mental health issues intersect in the lives of those we serve. 

Recent research confirms that hunger and mental health have a “bi-directional relationship”. For clients with chronic mental illness, the ability to access food can be a major challenge. New studies are shedding light on the devastating impact food insecurity can have on families and children. 

Mothers of school-aged children who face hunger are 53% more likely to suffer from severe depression than the general population. Teachers have been telling us for years that kids can’t focus and achieve their potential when they are hungry, leading to behavioral issues in the short term, and significant long-term setbacks in academic and emotional development. Dr. Drew Ramsey of Columbia University wrote that diet is “one of the most powerful interventions that a therapist can have on a client”.         

According to Feeding America, 50% of children facing hunger will need to repeat a grade. 

Leaders in the health care sector – like our partners at Swedish Hospital – are investing in local food systems  because they understand that providing healthy food resources is one of the most effective early intervention strategies for improving community health. 

While this focus on the link between hunger and mental health is a reminder of the challenges we face, it is also exciting to consider the opportunity we have to make an impact on the lives of young people. We are doing more than just “filling bellies” for a day or a week. We are helping parents and children in difficult circumstances continue to learn, grow, and improve their lives.  

At the beginning of a new school year in the middle of a wildly unpredictable moment in our history, I’m so thankful to be doing this work, and thankful to you for the support that makes our mission possible. 

               Ross Outten, Director of Strategic Programs

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


Press Contact

Greta Bailey at 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, or find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.