A few days before Thanksgiving, Yolanda Troche looked forward to the warm and boisterous gathering of loved ones at her mother’s house in Humboldt Park.

Not all of her siblings would probably make the holiday feast, but some would likely bring their spouses and children. Troche has endured some health difficulties in recent years that have prevented her from being able to work, including severe arthritis and a seizure condition.

She looked forward to the joyful feast.

“We’ll all reminisce and talk about the good and the bad,” said Troche, 46, at La Casa Norte’s Fresh Market in Humboldt Park. “And we just try to make the best of it.”

Yolanda Troche receives a turkey for her holiday feast with family. (All photos by Mateo Zapata for Nourishing Hope)

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Troche was one of hundreds of families who turned to the Fresh Market food pantry — a partnership between Nourishing Hope and La Casa Norte — for groceries to bolster holiday feasts. The pantry, which opened in 2019, serves a growing number of people in need on Chicago’s West Side.

In November, the Fresh Market served 1,110 households, an increase of nearly 25 percent from the same month a year ago.

During the months of November and December, Nourishing Hope provides turkeys and other centerpieces of holiday feasts, such as ham, chicken and Cornish hens, through all of its food distribution sites.

Supported by the annual Turkey Fund, the philosophy behind the effort is simple: Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy a special holiday meal with loved ones.

“It helps a lot,” said Jerrel Sims, 39, as he loaded groceries into his car. “We’re super grateful.”

Jerrel Sims, in line, at La Casa Norte’s Fresh Market.

Like many others at the pantry, Sims and his friend, Tina Cruz, still reeled from the impact of the pandemic on their lives. Sims works at a senior living community. He watched for months as the residents could only see their loved ones through a thick pane of glass. No contact.

For Cruz, the heartache hit even closer to home. Her best friend died from the virus last November. She planned to hold a vigil in her memory.

“I always do for all my loved ones,” Cruz said.

‘A surge of new faces’

If the Fresh Market pantry at La Casa Norte were a dance production, Omar Román would be both choreographer and principal dancer.

A trilingual son of Mexican immigrants — he speaks French, Spanish and English — Román takes pride in serving a largely Latino immigrant community. He grew up in neighboring Logan Square. His parents worked long hours in blue-collar jobs, empowering him to pursue an education in teaching, and in French culture and language at Northeastern Illinois University. (He also studied dance for years.)

Three days a week, volunteers arrive early at the Fresh Market to begin staging food for distribution. Román gives them instructions and soon they fly into action, loading carts with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, packaged groceries, and additional items, such as coffee and tea.

Often, a vivid bouquet of fresh flowers is placed in each cart.

Since May, Román has overseen the pantry operation, which has steadily grown as more people in the community have learned of the impressive array of services provided under one roof at La Casa Norte.

Omar Román oversees food distribution at La Casa Norte’s Fresh Market.

La Casa Norte provides comprehensive housing services in a robust effort to prevent homelessness. A full-service health center operated by Howard Brown Health is also tucked inside the bright and airy facility.

It’s effectively a one-stop shop for people facing complex and often interwoven difficulties.

“We’ve seen a surge of new faces, younger faces,” said Román, 37.

“I’ve heard stories about people losing their jobs and trying to find new places to live and they’re coming here to get something to eat,” he said.

When asked about his interactions with people coming to the pantry for food, Román’s eyes lit up in a smile above his mask.

Omar Román smiles for a portrait during a busy day at La Casa Norte’s Fresh Market.

“Oh my God,” he said. “My best interactions are when I’m outside and we’re just cracking jokes. We’re just having a nice conversation. It’s a beautiful, beautiful interaction.”

There are tough conversations, too. He recalled talking to a young woman who had been kicked out of her family’s home. She was in tears and in crisis.

Román sat with her and listened. And then he helped connect her to food and needed services.

“Besides providing the food from the pantry,” he said, “I’m glad I was able to provide some type of comfort as well.”

‘I want to give back’

As a cold drizzle settled in, Rhonda Owens stood beneath her black umbrella and waited her turn to receive food. It was her first time at the Fresh Market.

Her husband, a military veteran, had his first stroke three years ago. Now, he’s recovering from his most recent stroke that he suffered last spring. He’s able to get around with the help of a walker, Owens said, but he still needs a lot of help.

“He took care of me when I had cancer,” Owens said. “Now it’s my turn to take care of him.”

Rhonda Owens turned to the Fresh Market for food assistance amid mounting medical bills after husband’s stroke.

The costs related to his rehabilitation, including transportation, have been hard for them to bear. But Owens said she tries to keep their hardships in perspective.

“I’m counting my blessings, though,” she said. “Even with what I’m going through, it could always be worse.”

Among other first-timers at the pantry was Denise Centeno, 43, who planned to spend Thanksgiving at her son’s home. She was thrilled to pick up food from the pantry for their feast.

“This is a blessing,” Centeno said.

Denise Centeno picks up her Thanksgiving turkey from the Fresh Market.

Meanwhile, Cesar Romero, 31, was volunteering at the Fresh Market for the first time. He’d heard about the opportunity from a simple Google search, and was excited to get started.

“I enjoy the camaraderie, and the communal togetherness of it all. I think that and helping the people who need it keeps me inspired,” Romero said. “It offers perspective and inspiration.”

Cesar Romero, a lifelong Chicagoan, volunteering at the Fresh Market.

Romero works as an operations manager for the Latino grocery store El Condor in Logan Square, where was born and raised. As a lifelong Chicagoan, Romero said donating his time to local organizations is fulfilling for him, especially around the holidays.

“I feel that direct impact, and I feel good about it,” said Romero. “I’ve taken enough from this world, and I want to give back.”

All photos were taken for Nourishing Hope by Mateo Zapata.