May 4, 2024

Issues Continue with Chicago Migrant Shelter Food Distribution

By Cole Christensen and Jacob Struchen

Pilsen snack photos

Food stands located outside the Pilsen shelter provide food not available within the shelter.
(Photo by Jacob Struchen)

Imagine: you’re an asylum seeker fleeing a corrupt, developing country run by criminal organizations. Your life may be under threat, you could have been persecuted for your opinions, or maybe you just want a fresh start in a country where your children could grow up to be successful.

You arrive in Chicago, one of the largest cities in the free, powerful country of America, where anyone can live a satisfying life. The authorities take you to a shelter and give you your first American meal. 

How does it taste?

“Good,” said Ruiz Alejandro, a Venezuelan refugee at the Pilsen shelter.

Ruiz , 20, sells soda and snacks in front of the shelter. He is one of over 36,000 migrant refugees who have entered the City of Chicago. The influx of migrants has increased the need for shelter space, work permits, and especially food.

While Ruiz likes the food, there have been concerns over whether it can be enjoyed by all migrants.

As a father, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Alderman of Chicago’s 25th Ward that covers Pilsen, worries that the food may not be suitable for children.

“Some of the infants don’t eat spicy food,” he said. “I’m a father of triplets, and if they don’t eat, you gotta find another way.”

Spicy food is a significant issue because, according to the migrant, it is primarily traditional Mexican food. However, many of the shelter’s migrants come from worldwide.

14th Parish and Seventy-Seven Communities have catered to all of Chicago’s migrant shelters since January. They tend to receive help with the cooking process from smaller non-chain locations. In theory, this would allow for a diversified pallet from restaurants that may even be from the country of some of the migrants.

Previously, the Greater Chicago Food Bank handled catering, but it was replaced in early January 2024 as its methods were considered too expensive for the city. The restaurants that are usually offered the opportunity to cater to the shelters tend to be smaller non-chain locations that provide food that may be from the country of some of the migrants.

Many businesses participating in this collaboration are Black or Latino-owned, allowing the government to invest in aiding the vast number of refugees and the companies of marginalized groups simultaneously.

Google Trends: Searches on Venezuela and migrants here)

UIC Urban Planning Professor and Colombian-born immigrant John Betancur is critical of the investment in small businesses.

“Small businesses don’t have much capacity,” Betancur said. “They usually have small kitchens and depend on small clientele.”

While Betancur agreed that helping small businesses are important, he finds that the method used here is not sustainable in the long run. 

“If you are used to providing 1,000 meals a day, and suddenly you have to produce 2,000, it doesn’t pay to expand your business for those 2,000 Because there’s a temporary contract,” said Betancur.

Few restaurants serve Venezuelan food or anything specific to the migrants’ origins. Chicago can only wait so long on these small businesses before they start overproducing.

The question of how to improve the quality of food provided to migrants can be solved in the same way as improving the quality of anything: money.

Unfortunately, Chicago has finite resources and can only provide so much. Ald. Sigcho-Lopez believes that the federal government must take on more responsibility.

“I don’t think the federal government has any justification for not providing any support or assistance,” Sigcho-Lopez said. 

As stated previously, this large influx of migrant refugees was very unexpected, so many of the preparations were likely rushed. Sigcho-Lopez finds this to be a major issue affecting not just the food but the shelters as a whole. The delegation of tasks, such as providing food to catering companies and restaurants, is a smart way to handle the situation, as the government of Chicago itself is not used to catering on such a large scale. However, the Alderman finds that the government needs to put in more effort to handle the crisis.

“The governor did not provide any support until recently in January,” he said. “A few weeks ago, 10,000 people were resettled. Unfortunately, that helped came late.”

Betancur shares a similar sentiment that the federal government assumed this issue would be on a much smaller scale. 

“The assumption was that they work, get work permits, and then stand on their own and don’t need any more assistance from the city,” Betancur said. “The federal government is very slow issuing those work permits, so it’s turning this into a chronic problem.” 

This catering deal was likely planned as a short-term solution, but as the crisis continues, it is increasingly clear that this deal does not handle the crisis long-term. The government is losing more and more money maintaining this collaboration, and as such, how it is being handled needs to be re-evaluated on a large scale.

Read More: Immigration coverage

Outside of federal funding, there’s still potential for innovative solutions. Sigcho-Lopez suggested kids’ menus to encourage caterers to “cater” to children’s needs. Betancur toyed with the idea of providing migrant shelters with portable kitchens and groceries rather than depending on restaurants.

“Instead of paying for processed foods, they [would be] paying for raw materials,” Betancur said.

For now, a migrant could buy snacks from Ruiz, or walk to the nearby church that sometimes donates food. Also, food trucks and stands frequently position themselves outside these shelters to provide cheap food. Some children prefer these options to what Chicago’s catering companies have provided.

“Every day, bring better nourishment,” Ruiz said about how the city could improve the food in shelters.


Your Thoughts


Is the food quality in Chicago migrant shelters representative of the state of these migrant shelters and in what ways do you think the government can better aid these refugees? Leave a comment below.

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