The area where we are based, West Englewood, is a food desert because of the lack of accessible fresh and nutritional food. Staying healthy is more than just staying distant right now; health requires giving your body what it needs to be at its best. The support we need to build our immune systems and have our strongest defenses against a pandemic requires healthy eating and healthy habits, both of which are not easily accessible to all communities.
This week, we’re looking further into hunger and how the barrier has impacted our work before and within the reality of COVID-19.
Behind the Barrier: Access to Food
Food insecurity often indicates both economic instability of a family and resource scarcity of a community. What a person is able to eat represents more than what they can afford, but also what they can access. Barriers to healthy eating include physical location of grocery stores, time, safety, transportation, money, and quality or freshness of available food.
In 2019, 59% of the people we serve self-identified as food insecure. In addition to reporting food insecurity, 73% of our community members surveyed said they do not have jobs — again, this was BEFORE the economic and public health crisis. As New America reported, these dire statistics are only increasing in low-income communities as the pandemic worsens.
What does this look like for individuals?
People are hungry. Hungry people have weaker immune systems, are more likely to have health conditions, and are at higher risk within this pandemic. If this sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. Hungry people are dying, at alarming rates.
The stress we are all experiencing is augmented for some by the worry of where their next meal will come from. People are having to choose between paying their light bill and paying for groceries. In addition to feeding themselves, school closures create an additional burden of more mouths to feed. Many children eat breakfast and lunch at school, and rely on the free and reduced lunch program to meet their needs. Parent’s stress is communicated to their children, often unintentionally. In January 2020, 85% of children in our after school program reported worrying about their family a lot due to safety and security of resources — a burden no child should bear.
Families are also worrying about keeping those they love safe and fed at the same time, being forced to make difficult decisions about how to access critical resources. During this pandemic, standing in long lines for a food pantry is a safety risk , one which intensifies as more and more Americans lose their jobs and demand for pantries surge. Even complying with safety recommendations of standing 6 feet apart, large gatherings of people greatly increases risk of exposure.
Finally, we all know that food is more than a necessity. Food is culture. Food is family and community. Food is expression. This time has given many Americans an opportunity to explore our kitchens and new meals, reconnect with the art of cooking, and stimulate our minds and learn something new with a (ideally) delicious and exciting result. The stress release that food allows, the memories it brings up within us, the connection it can create in a home is not possible if you are unable to access the ingredients. Our community deserves to not only access basic survival needs, but also the fundamental human needs of connection, joy, and love. A hot meal can facilitate much more than an end to hunger.
What does this look like for the public?
In times of a pandemic like this, the health of another is the health of ourselves. When any community is unhealthy and unable to have the resources they need, every community is at risk. During COVID-19, those at highest risk for contraction of the virus are people with weakened immune systems. “Individuals who experience food insecurity are more likely to have poorer health, and to have diet-related conditions like diabetes,” again putting them at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 (Feeding America, 2020). As Nicole Erret, a public health expert at the University of Washington has stated, “These things are so interconnected. Preexisting social vulnerabilities only get worse following a disaster, and this is such a perfect example of that.”
That means that the people most at-risk for getting sick cannot easily access what they need to stay healthy, ultimately putting all of us in danger.
What are people’s options?
There are a few options to get food, though they are often unaffordable. unsustainable, or unsafe.
- Travel to a grocery store: Affordable grocery stores are out of the way for our community, with the closest grocery store nearly 2 miles away from the Peace House. For many, this requires crossing different gang territories. Travelling by public transportation (a necessity if one does not have their own vehicle) requires an additional cost and puts people at a higher risk for coming into contact with someone infected. And once you get to the store, you must be able to afford the groceries there — a challenge for the 73% of our community that is unemployed.
- Order delivery: Ordering delivery requires online forms of payment, which many of our neighbors aren’t able to access because they don’t have internet, a credit card, or a bank account. Beyond the online component, ordering food also has extra costs for delivery and can hike up the price for groceries. Again, another inaccessible aspect for low-income communities.
- Eat what’s nearby: There are nearby corner stores within walking distance, but these options largely offer highly processed food and alcohol. There are very few options for fresh and nutritional food at corner stores, and unfortunately, this is often the most accessible option for those we work with.
What is I Grow Chicago doing?
Before this pandemic, food insecurity was one of the barriers we addressed every day. Our Peace House served as a place for fresh food from our garden, an open kitchen, and a community pantry readily available to those in need. The garden was one of the first projects for I Grow Chicago when we started six years ago in order to bring fresh vegetables and strengthen relationships to fresh food in our community. During Covid-19, we knew that we had to find ways to continue feeding people and providing water.
Our delivery program began the first week of social isolation, taking stock of our pantry and reaching out to all our supporters for more fresh food and non-perishable goods. During 842 wellness check in phone calls, we have asked what each household needs; almost every single family we call asks for food each week.
Because we know food is about joy and destressing as much as it is about survival, each week we asked people what they would like to eat, what they have enjoyed, and what they want more of. We personalize our care packages as much as possible to give the human touch many are missing right now. One of our neighbors receiving weekly care packages, Jerline, said: “So I really like the calls, the phone calls that let me know that people on the outside do care. You guys always say, ‘what do you need?’ You go beyond family.”
Now into our sixth week of outreach, we have delivered 6,849 staple food items and 4,271 prepared meals to our neighbors. CPS often served as a place for breakfast and lunch for the children in our community, which families would not be expected to meet due to transportation barriers. CPS is providing these meals, and we have picked up and delivered them daily, now totaling 660 children’s meals.
In addition to our daily curb-side deliveries, we are working with our partner in peace Legal Aid Chicago to provide public benefits and SNAP counselling over the phone. This week, we printed 1,000 fliers promoting this resource and began canvassing the neighborhood.
These impressive numbers have been possible due to the generosity of our supporters and the grace of our community. We are proud to be able to take care of each other and ensure that everyone who needs it can eat something that satisfies their stomachs and invigorates their souls.
How you can help
Continue to support our efforts by donating to our No Life is Expendable campaign, where every donation no matter the size will be matched by $100 until May 20! This campaign is rooted in our values: When we all give what we can, we create a more loving and sustainable world. All we ask is that you share what you can, whether it’s $15, $150, or $1,500, or a message to your friends to contribute.
Special thanks to our ongoing food partners:
- Feast and Imbibe (providing 250 hot meals per week)
- Gate Gourmet (providing 1,000 prepared meals and snacks per week)
- Whole Foods West Loop (providing staple food items and fresh produce)