The Coppin Community Center (CCC) food pantry located in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood on Michigan Avenue, just minutes away from the Garfield Green Line stop, is one of many that is actively providing support and fresh produce to those in need through a client choice system.
Shoppers living in the neighborhood can walk into the center and choose from a plethora of food options, including frozen meats, milk, eggs, bread, canned goods, fresh produce and additional products such as menstrual products and COVID-19 tests, all completely free of charge.
“The point is to make them feel like they have a choice, like they have some humanity. You know, you don’t go into a grocery store and hear, ‘Here you go,’ and that’s it,” says Frankie Parham, the director of the CCC, volunteer coordinator of the food pantry and retired teacher.
The CCC is a partner of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, an organization that provides food and service to hundreds of partner pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other programs in Chicago and Cook County. With their aid, the CCC has been able to serve about 65 to 70 households per week, averaging over 100 people during their two-hour operation window on Mondays between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Currently, the pantry has about 10 volunteers, which Parham states is manageable but does come with its challenges.
“Let’s say eight volunteers is exactly what we need, so if anybody is absent, it throws us for a loop. So, I’m still looking for volunteers,” Parham said.
The University of Chicago recently hosted a panel discussion regarding food insecurity. After attending the event and receiving positive feedback, Parham was able to receive some student volunteers to help out with weekly food distribution.
The University of Chicago Service Center encourages students to volunteer at nonprofit organizations within their community. “They feel that it’s important that they get out of the bubble, look around and see what else is going on in their community outside of just the university,” Parham said.
Pantries like CCC play an essential role in their communities, providing residents with readily available healthy options, especially at a time when accessible and affordable nutritious food options are scarce in many South Side neighborhoods. “Food insecurity is real. It creates such problems in communities that we’re living in,” Parham said.
As defined by the organization Feeding America, food insecurity is “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. This can be a temporary situation for a family or can last a long time. Food insecurity is one way we measure how many people can’t afford food.”
“True food insecurity is not the lack of food but is the lack of quality food,” explained Parham. “It’s not, ‘I don’t have food.’ It is, ‘I don’t have enough food, and I don’t know how to get all the food that I need, like healthy foods.’”
Inflation has caused food prices to soar exponentially post-pandemic. According to the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s 2021 Annual Report, they have seen a 25 percent increase in product demand, of which 36 percent was fresh produce.
“They help because it’s not just for people that are out of work, these people are struggling with inflation. There are people who are working but are still having a difficult time making ends meet. So, it’s a service,” said Parham. “It’s a service for a wide variety of people and incomes.”
Another client choice pantry is the Edward G. Irvin Foundation (EGI) food pantry. Located in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, EGI is one of few pantries that operated fully amid the height of the pandemic, a feat they achieved while also having no volunteers or customers known to have caught the COVID-19 virus in their space.
“During the pandemic we were serving everyone. If you came here, we would get you some food,” said James McMurray, chairman of the EGI food pantry. “We were serving every week.”
The EGI food pantry operates every Monday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and services zip codes 60637, 60649, 60619 and 60615.
Having been open only since January 2021, the volunteer-run service has had to navigate its food distribution solely during a global pandemic. The biggest change that they have experienced post-pandemic is having to inform clients that their pantry would be operating on a new schedule in which shoppers would only be able to visit the pantry twice per month.
Following the shared ethos of many other client choice pantries, including the CCC, the EGI food pantry places value on the importance of educating and providing people with healthy food options.
“If you look at our pantry, you’ll see tags hanging off the shelves, and they tell you that something is healthy to eat,” said McMurray. Products such as chips have red tags indicating that it is something best to consume once in a while, yellow tags indicate products that are okay to consume on a more regular basis, while green tags hanging over things like fresh produce designate the healthiest and most nutritious products available.
Features such as this have been helpful for community members not only to receive good food but also to provide them with knowledge surrounding it. “We really focus on nutritional education,” said McMurray. As clients walk into the pantry there is a waiting room equipped with chairs and a TV set showcasing various programs from the USDA such as “My Plate,” which consists of cooking demonstrations and healthy lifestyle advice . “At least when you’re sitting there waiting, at least, you know, we kind of get the message through that you can eat healthier.”
As the EGI food pantry is another partner of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the food that they receive is based on an option-filled order form that they fill out on a weekly basis. Therefore, available foods vary from week to week but include essential health options alongside household items.
Although approaching only their second anniversary of serving their community, the EGI pantry has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from residents of surrounding areas.
“It helps quite a bit. I had a conversation last week,” said McMurray. “You guys, you really help. Because I don’t have to spend my money on that kinda stuff,” said a client, alluding to the high costs of essential food items like milk, eggs, and bread.
As clients within Woodlawn and surrounding communities have started to rely on the EGI pantry as a resource, McMurray has observed changes in the way shoppers have approached the pantry in comparison to the beginning of the pandemic. “We have seen some change in the traffic flow, but it’s basically because they can depend on us to be here. They used to try to come back every week, but now they know that, ‘Hey, I can skip this week and come back next week.’”
“That’s because communities on the South Side and the West Side have had so many different organizations come in to do stuff. It’s been promises made, promises unkept, so when you come in, you kind of have to earn a little credibility,” explained McMurray.
As food insecurity disproportionately affects communities and households in Chicago’s South and West Sides, community aid such as food pantries become a staple element in people’s lives.
“I think that we’ve really become an important part of the food chain in Woodlawn. I mean, there are other pantries out there, but people kind of like the way we run things so they continue to come back. When we started, we could hardly get 15 to 20 people in here, but now for example when you left here, at the end of that day we had served 101 families. So if you extrapolate that out and say like three to four people per household, that’s a lot of people,” said McMurray.
Many food pantries around the city engage in other forms of community engagement aside from food distribution. However, like with many things, the pandemic has halted many of these resources.
The EGI food pantry also provides aid and resources to their community aside from food. Recurring vaccination events, blood drives and kidney screenings are some of the community outreach programs that EGI has hosted over the past few months. “We’re more than just the food pantry. We really want to be a community resource center,” said McMurray.
Similarly, the CCC had numerous programs that were targeted to uplift and provide support to youth in the Washington Park neighborhood and surrounding areas. “With a lot of our programs, we were really affecting the Washington Park community greatly. And it felt good, but now we’re just trying to build it back up,” Parham said.
CCC has a board of directors now that’s very interested in investing in programs for youth in the community. Pre-pandemic it had an afterschool Boys and Girls club that provided two hot meals and one take-home dinner for kids in the community. “Once the pandemic hit and the schools closed, so did the afterschool program, and I don’t know if we’ll get it back,” said Parham.
Resources such as this have been missed by many community members. “We’re trying to build back better. The pantry, because of our relationship with the depository, was an easy choice to start with,” explains Parham.
Alongside pursuing an after-school program for youth in the community, CCC is also working towards incorporating a mentoring program for young mothers, in an effort to address educational alongside emotional needs to their community. “Providing young parents with grief counseling, or anybody that’s going through something at this time. Social, emotional, health, medical, things like that are important,” said Parham.
The Inner-City Muslim Action Network located in Chicago’s historic Englewood neighborhood has been providing support and resources to their community for over 25 years.
Their client choice food pantry and distribution program has been servicing zip codes 60629, 60636 and 60621 for about a year and a half. It was formed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on resource access within the community. Food distribution had started at their main campus at 2744 W 63rd St., where other organizations such as Sanad, RAGE and Nourishing Hope partnered with IMAN to provide relief to their communities.
“The one program that everything else hangs its hat on is the clinic and our healthcare service because that’s where it starts,” explains the manager of the Food and Wellness Center, Jamil Wright. “None of this means nothing if we can’t get a person involved with doctors and behavioral health specialists.”
The IMAN food pantry is open three times every week in two-hour windows; Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon, Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. The pantry currently serves about 70 families each day they are open, averaging about 170 to 190 families each week.
The organization operates a health clinic that is equipped to help with behavioral health, a grocery store (Go Green Community Fresh Market) located down the street from the pantry and a reentry program that provides support to community members that are coming home from prison, “not just to change their life, but to help the community,” Wright explains. Events like ceramic sculpting and senior luncheons are also available.
As food insecurity in Englewood and other South Side neighborhoods has been proven to be a serious issue, organizations like IMAN are finding ways to provide support for their communities. Big box grocery store Whole Foods has recently shut down operations in the neighborhood as their approach for subsidizing certain grocery products was not beneficial to residents of the neighborhood, now only further alienating the community from healthy food access.
Unlike community pantries like IMAN, EGI and the CCC, who listen and actively address residents’ needs, a common trend seen from large companies and government officials is the idea that they know best instead, a mindset that has been proven inefficient, Wright argues.
“You don’t want people to feel like a victim, because then they can’t ever be empowered to feel like they got the strength in their hands to change it,” explains Wright. “What we’re trying to establish at IMAN, just in connection to this, is a food ecosystem. Which will empower us, empower the community, all at once.”
To find a food pantry near you, visit the Greater Chicago Food Depository Network.
Header Illustration by Julia Hester