Michell Wheeler’s face lit up when she watched a volunteer unload a cart of diapers onto the shelves at her local food pantry.
“I’m flabbergasted,” she said. “I’m willing to give back half of my food to get diapers.”
The Chicago grandmother didn’t know diapers would be available that night at the Fresh Market, a Breakthrough Urban Ministries food pantry in East Garfield Park, a low-income neighborhood that never fully recovered after the 1968 riots.
The shelf labeled “Diapers” is typically empty or stocked with other goods. When diapers are in stock they fly off the shelf, said Crystal Robinson, Fresh Market’s Coordinator.
In November, Robinson and her team of volunteers served 467 households, about half of which are already on “food stamps” or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides a LINK card to purchase food, and the Fresh Market is meant to supplement these families or provide them with goods that they cannot purchase with LINK or Illinois WIC — the Women, Infants and Children program.
Diapers are on the “no buy” list of both LINK and WIC because they are considered a paper product.
“You can buy Red Bull and candy [with government subsidies] but not diapers,” said Bob Woodley, who works as a programmer at a hedge fund by day and delivers diapers at night. He and his wife, Brenna, founded Bundle of Joy Diaper Bank, a nonprofit organization they run out of their Old Town garage.
Robinson calls Bundle of Joy a blessing.
“Bob’s an extension [of Fresh Market],” Robinson said. “He’s caught our vision but he’s casting his own. They have a heart for this.”
Woodley and his wife have delivered 65,000 diapers to dozens of food pantries and charities across the city since establishing the diaper bank in June. After meeting Robinson while volunteering at Breakthrough and learning about the need, Woodley and his daughter drove to Target, filled their SUV with diapers and made their first delivery. Bundle of Joy officially became a 501(c)3 on Tuesday.
Bundle of Joy hopes to collect 100,000 diapers for Chicago kids in the month of December. (Learn how to donate here.) It’s a good start, Woodley says, but many more are needed to solve the problem.
Fresh Market’s Robinson said she has seen a dramatic increase in the number of families served each month. The food pantry tries to provide low-income residents with additional resources, too — workshops on employment and legal aid and even a local Girl Scouts troop.
“Sometimes it seems that the need is so overwhelming,” she said. “Next to food, diapers are our number one request.”
For Michell Wheeler, the East Garfield Park grandmother supporting four children and two grandchildren, the need for diapers is real. She’s forced to walk to the local grocery or convenience store — where diapers are marked up in price — because she doesn’t own a car. She’s tried cloth diapers but has to scrub them in her bathtub because she cannot afford a washer and dryer. Once in a while, her 2-year-old grandchild has to wear diapers too small for him until she can buy his size.
“It’s hard,” she said. ”When you’re put in that predicament, people are forced to cut corners to make ends meet.”