May 4, 2024

A Hungry City: Insight into Chicago’s Ongoing Food Crisis

By Sarah Muresan and Kelly Mangas

pilsen food pantry photo

Volunteers working to put together food for the Pilsen Food Pantry. (Photo by Kelly Mangas)

Dayaris Guarisma and her family, like many others, speak only Spanish. In a country that predominantly speaks English, she has difficulty getting food when there is a language barrier in the way.

But the Pilsen Food Pantry has helped bridge that gap.

“It is a good help for those of us who do not have work”, said Guarisma who detailed how beneficial the pantry has been in feeding her and her family. Guarisma was with her sister-in-law and niece waiting for food outside the pantry as she does every few weeks.

The Pilsen Food Pantry serves mainly immigrants who struggle to find work or not enough work to support their families. Due to the diverse community that the pantry serves, many of the staff and volunteers speak various languages such as Spanish, English and Cantonese. This is extremely helpful for families like Guarisma who don’t speak English.

Located at 2124 S Ashland Ave, it was established in 2018 and has been a staple for helping members of the community facing food insecurity ever since.

In addition to ongoing food insecurity, the lack of available jobs for residents of underserved communities makes the issue worse. Businesses like grocery stores are less likely to open in communities where there is a shortage of money being put back into the local economy. Therefore, it effectively furthers a shortage of accessible stores in certain areas.

Alejandra Corral, a fourth-year UIC medical student, said companies that avoid opening in underserved communities “creates a never-ending cycle.” Many of the bigger and more successful grocery stores are not coming into areas with food deserts in order to maintain their personal profits. This makes it so that many people in underserved areas need to travel much further to get affordable groceries, “These huge companies that could potentially help out don’t want to invest in these neighborhoods”, said Corral.

Many members of these communities struggle with finding transportation to further grocery stores. Especially in the city, transportation can be unreliable and it is difficult to bring many groceries home by foot. This is why it is so important to have closer grocery stores and food pantries to better serve their respective communities.

Pilsen Food Pantry manager Steve Wiley, started four years ago as a volunteer at the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic. From his time working at the pantry, he and the other volunteers went from serving 200 families per week, to now averaging around 650 families per week. It is a choice-based pantry, which allows families to decide exactly what food they need.

Video: Slideshow of the Pilsen Food Pantry

Wiley mentioned how the pantry has positively impacted the families they serve.

“They provide enough food per family of four for two weeks,” he said.

Another community facing a food desert is the town of West Garfield Park, just 20 minutes west of Chicago’s downtown. With stores and restaurants having closed in mass numbers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents must now travel even further to find fresh foods and groceries.

In 2022, the main store of West Garfield Park shut down due to a rat infestation. Located at 420 S. Pulaski Rd, the Save-A-Lot is now in the works of being renovated and reopened.

Ohio-based company Yellow Banana partnered with the West Garfield Park Community Council, and estimates 10 weeks of renovations worth $2 million to bring the store back to West Garfield Park.

Many people still live in food deserts in the city. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 850 which established the Illinois Grocery Initiative, on August 18th, 2023.

Targeting underserved communities, the program looks to provide support for pre-existing grocery stores and the opening of new ones. The ultimate goal is to “ensure Illinois residents and families have access to affordable and nutritious food options,” Pritzker said when announcing the initiative.

“Food insecurity has been a challenge to navigate statewide. About one in four Illinois residents live in an area determined by USDA guidelines to be a food desert,” said Illinois State Rep. Hoan Huynh of the 13th district, in response to Pritzker’s senate bill.

The program aims to slowly renovate and reopen stores in communities that either lack stores, or have not received proper maintenance to keep a store running properly. It costs money, sometimes more than stores have, to pay for lighting and refrigeration, both of which are necessary in providing fresh groceries to their communities.

Corral offered advice for Chicagoans who want to help the cause: “I would just suggest Googling, you know, there’s a bunch of soup kitchens and different pantries across Chicago that are really trying to at least address the need.”

“Food insecurity remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels in the Chicago area at 19% overall”, said journalist Deborah L. Shelton.

If you have extra food sitting in your pantries that would otherwise go to waste, consider donating to a local food pantry or volunteering your time to help those in need. The food sitting inside a pantry could be going to a family who hasn’t had a meal in days.

Twenty-eight communities throughout the city are currently in a food desert, and it is our job as Chicagoans to support our communities. These communities are located throughout Chicago-land but a majority are found on both the South and West sides of the city, including West Englewood, Austin and South Shore.

If that can be done by donating excess food to a pantry, or volunteering our time, then that is a good way to give back to the communities that surround us.

“Volunteer at the Pilsen food pantry or any other food pantry. Everybody’s really friendly and because it is run by volunteers, they know that people are coming in without the experience, and they just want to help out. And that’s all that matters,” said Corral.

How to Help

Below is a map of Chicago-based pantries where you can donate food.

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