Food pantries ‘on the front line’ of the coronavirus pandemic take precautions

By Mari Devereaux, Managing Editor

Wesley Enriquez

Once welcomed with warm embraces and stacks of food to choose from, visitors of the “hugging food pantry” are now met by double door barriers, gloves, assembly lines and pre-packaged items.

With the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic posing safety concerns for both volunteers and those seeking food, pantries and organizations distributing food across Chicago have embraced a “grab-and-go” model to minimize exposure to vulnerable populations.

Jaquenette Kabir—coordinator of the New Life Covenant Church Southeast food pantry, 7757 S. Greenwood Ave., nicknamed the “hugging food pantry”—said although visitors have been understanding, the transition has been met with a loss of empowerment and choice.

At the beginning of the stay-at-home directive, Kabir actually saw fewer people visit the “hugging food pantry” because they were afraid to come out, but now she has started to see the average or slightly higher numbers of people coming in.

While there has not yet been a dramatic increase in people’s demand for food, Kabir expects this will change the longer parents are out of work and children are out of school. As a food pantry coordinator, Kabir said she is worried there may also be a donation shortage.

“When our shoppers come in, we greet them with a hug, and we ask them how they are doing and how their family is doing and [have] that connection with them,” Kabir said. “Now we’re not able to do that. It’s a big change for both parties.”

Like other pantries partnering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Kabir said they have cut down on volunteers and formed an assembly line to prepare bags of essential foods. All volunteers practice social distancing and wear protective gear, placing the food bags on a table inside a set of double doors for people to pick up.

Carol Petersen, director of the Wellness Center and co-founder of the Pop-Up Pantry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said since it is important “even more so now than at any point in time” for pantries to stay open, following guidelines to keep visitors safe is key.

At the Pop-Up Pantry, students wait six feet apart on blue tape markers while in line, and volunteers wear gloves, package food apart from one another and constantly clean students’ baskets and laminated numbers, Petersen said.

While there is no impending food or supply shortage, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker emphasized during their address on Friday, March 20, there is some concern from those working at food pantries that the longer Illinois’ stay-at-home order is in place and businesses are closed, food insecurity could increase.

According to a 2019 study by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, approximately 41% of students attending four-year universities experience some form of food insecurity during the school year.

In Cook County, Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap Study found that, at some point, one in seven people experience food insecurity annually.

Associate Dean of Student Life Kari Sommers said in a Thursday, March 26 email to the Chronicle in lieu of an interview that ColumbiaCare Packages—a week’s supply of free food provided to students by the Student Government Association and the Student Life office—will be unavailable while the campus is closed.

Sommers said Student Life experienced a surge in requests for care packages before campus closed, and a lot of inventory was taken by Residence Life to assist students moving out or going through difficult circumstances. When the campus opens again, Sommers said Student Life will work with the Student Government Association to replenish its care package items.

Students with meal plans forced to move out of the dorms were told they would receive a credit to their account for the unused portion of their meal plan in a collegewide email sent Friday, March 20. Students with a credit balance were encouraged to set up a direct deposit to receive a refund. But neither the credit nor the refund would be available to students for “a minimum of 3 weeks,” according to the March 20 email.

The ColumbiaCares Fund—an emergency grant given by the college to students in crisis or in need of financial assistance—will still be accessible for students, Sommers said. Students can submit a request for assistance by writing a brief written statement describing their emergency to the Dean of Students Office.

Howard Rosing, executive director of the Irwin W. Steans Center at DePaul University and food studies and sustainable urban development professor, said being low income or having no income will be a primary cause of decreased access to food during the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you have income in your home, you can order food and have it delivered,” Rosing said. “That’s quite a privilege. If you don’t have income, you have to go out and find food unless pantries and other emergency food service providers figure out ways to bring food to people in neighborhoods.”

In areas where there is limited access to fresh food, Rosing said residents often shop at places in close proximity to their work, which is no longer an option for those who have lost their jobs or are working from home.

Shannon Bennett, deputy director of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization—which helps communities with low-income, working families—said when people buy mass quantities of food, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, it negatively impacts those who can’t afford to stock up.

Bennett said the organization is focused on addressing the needs of homeless people, people who are unemployed and senior citizens who are at risk of contracting the coronavirus. The organization is buying supplies such as alcohol wipes, soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, along with the possibility of dispatching mobile units of volunteers in cars to bring items to seniors, he said.

“We’re building our infrastructure to pull on our members, find new volunteers … and partner with other organizations to expand our reach,” Bennett said.

Brave Space Alliance, 1515 E. 52nd Place, is the first black- and transgender-led LGBTQ+ center on the South Side and recently opened a crisis pantry to provide necessary resources during the pandemic for marginalized communities, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

“Black and brown, queer and trans folks … we’re almost always the first impacted when things like this happen, and we’re one of the last ones on the list to be served,” said Director of Programs Brittney Thomas. “Which is why we need to be on the ground right now, really supporting our community.”

The center is currently looking for food and monetary donations as well as volunteers to deliver dry foods, hygiene kits, bottles of water and essential goods, Thomas said.

They are also offering online services, including transgender support groups and help signing up for food stamps, Medicaid, public housing and unemployment benefits.

Veronica Tirado, director of neighborhood services in the 33rd Ward, said she is working with 33rd Ward Working Families, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward and Chicago Action Medical to connect neighbors and provide mutual aid services such as food and supplies deliveries, mental health services and financial assistance.

Through hyperlocal efforts, the ward has begun identifying those in need. Tirado said they are worried about people being displaced from the neighborhood and small businesses closing due to low income.

Julia Moria, a 2019 Columbia illustration alumna who lives in Brighton Park, said she has seen family-owned businesses on Facebook advertising that they are stocked and sanitary and asking for support, adding that a few of her friends who live alone cannot afford their next month’s rent because they are not able to work for the time being.

“It’s either pay their rent, or pay for food,” Moria said. “I’ve had a few friends have to go back to their parents’ house until this whole thing dies down.”

Bennett said right now the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization is assessing the situation and getting ready to address needs as they arise in the following weeks.

“What people need to see is people being supportive and just rolling up sleeves and seeing where they can pitch in,” Bennett said. “That is the tagline, be ready to help when the call is put out, because the call is coming. Groups like ours are on the front line.”