During the holiday season, many people think about those who are going hungry and deliver food to pantries and soup kitchens in their communities. This year, the need for food is even greater: Some 10 percent of adults and 14 percent of families in Illinois have not had enough to eat during the pandemic, according to a recent report by Dr. Diane Schanzenbach, authored in collaboration with the Food Research & Action Center.
Earlier this year, the Trust provided $425,000 in general operating funding to eight Building Pathways to Stability grant recipients that are addressing, from many angles, the issue of food insecurity—defined by the Greater Chicago Food Depository as “the lack of consistent access to adequate, nutritious food.” Grant recipients are Beyond Hunger, Chicago Fund on Aging and Disability, Windy City Harvest, Cornerstone Community Development Corporation NFP, Growing Home Inc., Lakeview Pantry, Metropolitan Family Services, The Experimental Station: 6100 Blackstone, and Urban Growers Collective Inc.
“Food is not only essential for our bodies and brains to function, but it’s also how we celebrate, how we get through tough times, how we show that we care, and, often, how we develop relationships—at a table sharing a meal,” said Anna Lee, the Trust’s director of community impact. “We recognize that there are great needs in this moment, and we want to make sure, in a region as rich and prosperous as ours, that no one goes hungry.”
Food insecurity is a systemic challenge with deep and far-reaching tentacles, said Lee. For starters, Illinois imports almost all the fresh food people eat because Illinois farms almost exclusively grow soybeans and corn used for products such as animal feed and ethanol. At any given moment, the region only has enough food in local warehouses to feed the population for a few days—so any supply chain interruption can create crisis-level shortages.
“For many, it was a shock at the start of the pandemic to go to a major grocer and see no food on the shelves,” said Connie Spreen, executive director, Experimental Station. “For the first time, many people came to realize what it means not to have access to food.”
Yet, for far too many communities in our region, food access and insecurity have been perennial challenges. Job losses, store closures, and supply chain interruptions caused by the pandemic made hunger hit harder in these communities.
“When there’s a crisis, people’s basic needs must be met: food, water, shelter, healthcare,” said Erika Allen, executive director, Urban Growers Collective. “Black and Latinx communities are incredibly vulnerable on these issues on a good day, and that’s exacerbated when there’s a major disaster.”
Many frontline organizations interrupted their standard programming when the pandemic hit to address acute community food needs. For example, the Experimental Station could not open its 61st Street Farmers Market on schedule, so instead, it delivered Market Boxes to low-income households of color. Urban Growers Collective collaborated with Chi Fresh Kitchen and growers and chefs of color to deliver 1,000 hot, nutritious meals a week to people in need.
All these efforts required intense time, resources, and volunteer hours—and often forced organizations to stretch their budgets to meet mounting local needs. Stable, adequate, general operating funding is vital for organizations like these to be able to respond in times of crisis and keep their doors open after the crisis has passed.
“It’s been exciting to have all hands on deck, as there is when there’s a crisis. It promotes humility and creates opportunities to learn from one another,” said Allen. “A crisis like COVID can even unveil new opportunities to address the systemic issues that we see in times like these can be deadly. With general operating funding like we received through this grant, we had a little more comfort to be able to stretch in this way.”
The best way to invest in this work, said Lee, is by making a financial gift to the Trust’s annual Unity Fund, which supports community organizations responding to the region’s essential needs.
Yet, people can also make meaningful change by wielding their purchasing power, said Allen. Buy from smaller grocers, Black and Latinx growers, local restaurants, and restaurateurs of color. Treat essential workers—such as personal grocery shoppers and food delivery drivers—with respect, and tip them generously for good service. By taking actions such as these, Allen, Lee, and Spreen agree that Chicago-area consumers can collectively help to create a more food secure region. “Now is the time to widen our circle and all do our part to end hunger in the region,” says Lee.
“Our whole goal is to show that everyone in Chicago is food insecure, and our whole food system is vulnerable,” said Allen. “Consumers can change that by understanding their power and using it correctly.”