To Keep Up With Pandemic Demands, Chicago Food Pantries Expand — And Get A Facelift

The Greater Chicago Food Depository wants to change the aesthetics of food pantries while expanding access in Black and Latino communities.

Food
In this Tuesday, May 12, 2020, photo, bags of fresh food wait to be given away at an event sponsored by the Greater Chicago Food Depository in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Food
In this Tuesday, May 12, 2020, photo, bags of fresh food wait to be given away at an event sponsored by the Greater Chicago Food Depository in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

To Keep Up With Pandemic Demands, Chicago Food Pantries Expand — And Get A Facelift

The Greater Chicago Food Depository wants to change the aesthetics of food pantries while expanding access in Black and Latino communities.

Food pantries are typically in windowless church basements, and for many people in need, standing in long lines to pick up cupboard and refrigerator staples is stigmatizing.

New grants from the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), a nonprofit with more than 700 partners in Cook County, hope to change aesthetics and expand food access in Black and Latino communities already suffering from racial disparities that were worsened by the pandemic.

Four new permanent food pantries will open, and 22 existing food pantries received a total of $2.6 million. The new food pantries will be run by community organizations who will decide everything from interior paint to what’s stocked on the shelves.

The news comes as the Chicago-area is still reeling from stay-at-home orders and business sanctions put in place to combat the coronavirus, which has left more than 19,000 dead throughout the state. In Cook County, the unemployment rate was at 9.3% in December — the highest in the state. And while the number of new unemployment claims are on the decline, the 40,000 new requests in the last week of January remain four times higher than the previous year.

The GCFD is dealing with severe need and scrambling to keep up overall in the region, according to officials. It distributed more than 93 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2020 — the largest amount ever in the organization’s 41-year history. That’s the equivalent of 77.5 million meals. Its partners have served an average of about 50% more people in need. The food depository is distributing about 350,000 pounds a day, up from 150,000 to 200,000 pounds before the pandemic.

“We need a stronger more resilient food system — one that prioritizes justice, one that strives to dismantle racism and one that honors community wisdom,” said Nicole Robinson, vice president of community impact for GCFD.

With near double-digits unemployment and disinvestment in communities, access to fresh food is limited in those same communities on the city’s South and West sides.

Food access concerns aren’t limited to Chicago. Newly-elected President Joe Biden quickly signed an executive order to increase food stamp benefits because of the economic crisis from the coronavirus pandemic. Biden has also proposed another $1,400 stimulus payment to help Americans, but Congress is still debating the plan, including who qualifies for the money.

The new and renovated food pantries will take a new approach to America’s growing hunger problem.

“We’re putting the resources in the hands of the organizations that know this work best, that know the communities best,” Robinson said.

The four new pantries, which are styled like small grocery stores, will be run by Endeleo Institute serving Washington Heights/Roseland neighborhoods; Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Englewood/Chicago Lawn; New Life Centers of Chicagoland of South Lawndale; and the American Association for Single Parents in south suburban Dolton/Calumet City.

“[The organizations] are going to tell us what they want. We’re not going to tell them,” Robinson said. “Some may say we want more collard greens; some may say they want more kale.”

The new food pantries: Groceries, aerobics programs and coffee

Matt DeMateo, executive director of New Life Centers of Chicagoland, will operate a store on 27th Street and Lawndale Avenue — across the street from the nonprofit’s headquarters. The store closed after the owner retired a year ago, but with the GCFD grant, DeMateo said they are purchasing the building.

“We’re calling it El Mercardo, which is the market. It will also have a community space upstairs,” DeMateo said. “The vision is moms and dads can come and drop off their kids [at the public school across the street] and be in our aerobics program, get groceries and their kids can walk to our center and get after-school programming. How do we bring hope and feeling right at that corner?”

DeMateo hopes the revamped corner store opens in the next few months.

Food pantry
A rendering for a new market in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, which will be operated by New Life Centers of Chicagoland. Courtesy of New Life Centers of Chicagoland

Over in Dolton, the nonprofit American Association of Single Parents gets food for a pantry monthly from Bloomington, a city 130 miles south. Nicole Scott, president of American Association of Single Parents, said the GCFD grant will allow an on-site pantry to open five days a week by early summer. There will also be online orders and a delivery service.

“One of the things we discovered is there is stigma or shame going to a food pantry,” Scott said. “Our dream and goal is to make this experience as if you’re going to the grocery store. We are steering away from people from standing in line. They can come in and enjoy a cup of coffee while they are waiting for their turn.”

‘So many people are lacking basic access to food’

Over the summer, GCFD expanded its operations in communities hard hit by COVID-19 via pop-up food pantries. Food access challenges will no doubt continue even after the pandemic wanes, so a new strategy was needed.

Robinson, the vice president of community impact for GCFD, said the new food pantries will prevent long lines, and while shopping families can get connected to additional resources, such as food stamps, employment services and nutrition education.

“It is so hard to come up with the adjectives to describe what the last 11 months have been like. It’s been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of GCFD.

She’s said she’s felt rage and heartbreak.

“We can never find ourselves in a moment when so many people are lacking basic access to food,” Maehr said. “That moment for us as an organization, when we realized that we absolutely had to work differently, started with … seeing data about COVID-19, and [that] who was affected and dying mirrored who we saw in food pantry lines.”

With Black and brown communities being the most vulnerable, the approach of equality had to change, and addressing structural racism had to be the focus, Maehr said.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.