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The Local Heroes Stepping Up to Feed Families When Food Banks Close

In Chicago, as businesses shutter to ward off looters, many Black residents are left without affordable meals — and it's on local organizers to shoulder the burden

At 82nd Street and Racine Avenue in Chicago, behind a colorful storefront, sits B&B Ice Cream and Candy. Ellen Spencer and her husband, Bernard, live in the area and run the confectionery store. They’re one of only a few Black small-business owners in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

Auburn Gresham is considered a food desert with minimal access to fresh produce, grocery stores and supermarkets. Over the weekend, the neighborhood was hit by looters following protests against the killing of George Floyd. The neighborhood Walgreens, Walmart, and Dollar General were all looted. “Everything is completely in shambles,” Spencer tells me. “Even the currency exchanges where [residents] go to cash their checks are gone.”

Realizing residents wouldn’t be able to buy groceries in the neighborhood, Spencer announced Monday morning that her shop would offer free hot dogs, fries, chips and drinks to local residents. A few hours later, she and her husband spent the afternoon serving nearly 100 community members. They received $450 in donations to cover the $700 spent on food and supplies.

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8238 S. Racine Chicago IL

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Small businesses like B&B Ice Cream and Candy, along with community organizers, are stepping up to provide food and supplies in cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, where local governments shuttered food pantries, restaurants boarded up windows and companies like Target, Walgreens and CVS closed stores to prevent looting.

But food insecurity has been an issue for vulnerable communities long before the unrest and pandemic. Nicole Robinson, vice president of community impact for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told WBEZ in May that 30 to 50 percent of the South and West Side neighborhoods it serves were already experiencing food insecurity before COVID-19.

This problem was exacerbated Monday when Chicago Public Schools suspended their meal-distribution program after safety concerns for food workers and families. CPS is the nation’s third-largest school district. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s given out more than 12.5 million meals since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

CPS’s abrupt closure of food programs was immediately criticized and lasted only a day. On Tuesday, CPS food programs reopened.

Still, notable public school alums were frustrated with the closures. Hometown musical artists Saba and Ravyn Lenae both promoted food-redistribution sites, while Chance the Rapper tweeted, “Taking away food isn’t the way to get people to calm down.” He also promoted multiple pop-up meal-distribution programs to his 8.3 million followers.

Marcus Ward, who along with his wife, Brittany, runs the restaurant Urban Grill in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, was once a recipient of CPS’s free-meals program at Langston Hughes Elementary in the ’90s and early ’00s. His kids now attend CPS, and his mom once worked as a disciplinarian at a city school. “CPS is near and dear to my heart,” Wards tells me. CPS’s lunch suspension, he believes, “caused tremendous stress on families that depend on it.”

So Ward turned over his restaurant to families. He’ll offer free meals from noon to 5 p.m. this week to any students at CPS or other elementary schools in need of a meal. He’s spent a little over $1,500 out of pocket on supplies. “It’s probably not the smartest financial move I made,” Ward says. He was laid off from his full-time job at Marriott Marquis in downtown Chicago and neither he or his wife qualified for a stimulus check. “I’ve been in places where I have less money, so I’m not gonna let this hold me back.”

Like most pop-up food-distribution centers, Urban Grill is accepting donations via Zelle (urban, CashApp ($MarcoMoney) and PayPal.

Several organizers emphasize that they support protests in Chicago against police brutality and government inaction. “It drives attention that they’re taking food out of the hands of kids,” Mahdia Lynn, executive director of Masjid al-Rabia, a Muslim community center in Chicago, tells me. For the upcoming week, the center (with an office in downtown Chicago) has offered water and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to any families in need. “There’s a moral and ethical obligation to try and be of service to fill in for where our government is failing,” Lynn says.

Food insecurity hasn’t just affected Chicago. According to the USDA, 12 states experience food insecurity at a higher rate than the U.S. average. In Minneapolis, one food pantry is up 400 percent in response to COVID-19. Rob Williams, founder and executive director of Sheridan Story, says the nonprofit went from serving 25,000 to about 100,00 meals during the pandemic.

On Sunday, following the closure of business amid looting in Minneapolis, Sheridan Story received 12 semi-trucks’ worth of food donations in about five hours. “That’s what Minnesota ought to be known for, and that’s how we ought to be responding when people are in trouble and need support,” Williams says.

Back in Chicago, the city government shut down most CTA buses and L trains and implemented numerous road closures. When infrastructure shuts down in addition to essential stores closing, already vulnerable Black families are hit hardest. “It’s just a mess out here. Things are very chaotic, people feel trapped and chaos has ensued,” says Eva Marie Lewis, a 21-year-old student and community organizer

In response, Lewis recruited her white friends on the North Side with access to cars and open grocery stores to partner in a family-pairing program through the new community organization On the Ground Chi.

Lewis says it’s the least white allies can do to show their support. “Our goal is just to provide what people need right now,” she tells me. “We’re not going to be about to ‘fight the power’ if we don’t have what we need.”