Opinion guest column

Reporting on rising food insecurity, unemployment, and infection: local organizations confront American maladies

Chicago nonprofit organizations and residents speak on shifting circumstances amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Forced to move off campus in light of the spreading virus back in March 2020, I was sad. Sad to say goodbye to friends, to no longer be able to run alongside the Charles River, to not be able to go in to lab. But a part of me was also happy to be able to return home to Chicago. I was particularly excited for the warm meal of crispy karaage atop rice that awaited me, steaming clouds of comfort. 

Such mundane emotions in the midst of a pandemic reflect privilege. Fear was not something I had yet felt, despite a virus creeping its way into the U.S. I had a full refrigerator and a cozy home to return to, while tens of thousands of people across our nation faced the exact opposite. The privilege of food and shelter — what should be a human right — has become even more pronounced during this pandemic. 

The disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the inequities already present in our society, reflected in the disproportionately large mortality rates within Black and Brown populations. A plethora of factors lead to these statistics: an overrepresentation of Black and Brown people in front-line jobs, lack of access to and racial bias within the healthcare system, stress induced by racial discrimination, and a host of obesity-related diseases which increase COVID-19 fatality risk. Ultimately, all these factors and many more are rooted in America’s systemic racism.

Obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are intimately tied to a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food, as evident in food apartheids. From the pre-pandemic era to today, grassroots organizations have led the fight for food justice. Community gardens, collecting donated food to create free meals, and providing education on nutritious cooking are just a handful of examples of what these organizations do to promote food justice.

With insufficient government support to those food insecure, the work of alleviating hunger and nutrition deficits has fallen heavily on local organizations. How have nonprofit entities and the people they work with been faring in the pandemic? I spoke with the following Chicago nonprofits to learn about how the pandemic has affected their work: Breakthrough, Brave Space Alliance​ (BSA), Chicago Lights (CL), Inspiration Corporation, Plant Chicago, and Urban Growers Collective.

1. Job loss during the pandemic

Last year, Chicago resident Sara Ramos was receiving public assistance while facing a host of personal obstacles: a break up, domestic issues, and living in between apartments. “I was all over the place, so I’m so thankful that I came across them,” she recounts over our phone conversation. By “them,” Ramos is referencing Inspiration Corporation, a local nonprofit that supported her through those difficult times. Along with providing free meals at their 50-seat diner-style cafe and arranging permanent supportive housing services to people experiencing homelessness, Inspiration Corporation offers free culinary vocational training.

Ramos came across Inspiration Corporation when her public assistant was helping her find a job training program that fit her interests: she’s a passionate chef at heart. “I’m Puerto Rican, so I make a lot of Hispanic food, more savory foods than anything else,” like tacos, flautas, tostadas, and nachos. 

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Ramos began a 12-week journey to obtain her culinary license and eventually landed a job at the Art Institute of Chicago in October 2019. From the friendly staff to the freedom to experiment, she felt at home at her new job. That is, until the lockdown orders in response to the pandemic forced the closure of restaurants across the city.

“It came to a total halt. March 13th was my last day of work. I remember that because it was Friday the 13th.” She was told that she would be off work until further notice — no end to the uncertainty in sight. While Ramos hopes to stay in the culinary industry, she realizes that it might not be an option with the virus-stained question mark that looms over the future. Anticipating that her unemployment assistance will be winding down soon, she is preparing herself to get back to the drawing board. 

Throughout the lockdown, Ramos has kept in touch with Inspiration Corporation. “I don't have family here, so Inspiration Corporation is my biggest support system.” The organization continues to send her links to job opportunities in the ever-competitive market of the pandemic-distraught battleground. “It’s tough; everything’s just so different now.”

Like Ramos, two-thirds of restaurant employees nationwide have lost their jobs due to the pandemic — over eight million people. As millions of Americans and immigrants lose their jobs, the population of housing and food insecure people also skyrockets. Workers of color, who are often paid lower wages than their white counterparts, face additional financial difficulty.

2. Increasing need for food aid

These organizations observed a significant increase in demand for food. At Inspiration Corporation, they served more food in the period from April through June 2020 than they had planned on serving in the entire year, a 300% increase. It was the pandemic that spurred the BSA to start their Crisis Pantry, where they deliver food to the doors of Black and Brown queer and trans folks. At Breakthrough, full-time staff pivoted to work in their food pantry, the only source of fresh produce in East Garfield Park, when the usual group of 30 volunteers was no longer allowed to come to the facilities. 

Because shelters were concerned about the transmissibility of the virus through handling packages, many organizations could not accept the donated food, leading to food shortages within some of the organizations, all the while as colossal amounts of food waste also materialized during the pandemic.

3. Effects of social distancing measures

COVID-19 also forced pauses to in-person programming, with virtual replacements receiving much lower turnout. Manual labor-focused job trainings like that of the CL urban farm couldn’t virtualize their programs at all.

Although social distancing and virtualization have proven to decrease the spread of the virus, such measures have also had negative consequences for those experiencing food insecurity. Evan Cauble-Johnson, chief development officer at Inspiration Corporation, said in an interview, “There also used to be a shadow economy of do-gooders, church groups, and other people who would go through tent encampments and drop off supplies and food for people experiencing homelessness. Much of that has stopped because people don’t feel safe visiting large gatherings of people. Especially in downtown, there aren’t many people coming in to work, so there’s no one to ask for money from. Folks are more isolated and have fewer resources than they even did before, which was already a challenge.” There is also an inherent risk in traveling to get free meals from shelters and food kitchens, coming in contact with more people when commuting on public transit and awaiting a meal.

4. Government support, or lack thereof

At the end of the day, with finite resources, these organizations that work tirelessly with their communities cannot serve everyone in the city. What, then, should be the government’s role in all of this? “All men are created equal.” The unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” “For the people, by the people.” These are the epochal statements of the American patriarchs. The irony that figures who wrote these words included slave owners and white supremacists does not go unnoticed, and the dissonance between the lofty ideals of a democratically constituted America and government action, or rather inaction, remains today. With millions of residents hungry and sick today, how does the government live up to the nation’s founding promise? Solving the complex issues surrounding hunger is no simple task; would enforcing the federal funding of these nonprofits be an ethically sound and effective step in the right direction? 

Ben Jaffe, the associate director of farm operations and workforce development at CL, wishes that there was more subsidization of nonprofits’ programming and green spaces “built into the infrastructure of how public money is distributed,” while recognizing that “budgets are tight and everybody wants a slice of the pie.” He says that this does not mean to say that the city of Chicago does nothing, “but they could definitely do more.” 

Cauble-Johnson shared a similar sentiment regarding additional structural support as a part of government funding. As much as the nonprofit appreciates large donations, the massive redistribution elucidates the problem in and of itself. “This sort of strange architecture that’s very unique to the United States, with many different 501(c)(3) organizations developing to attack the same social problems, is probably inefficient. It would be easier if we would all agree that this is something that’s valuable that we should do, and then develop the tax base to fund a more consistent and centrally applied solution. But that’s bordering on socialism. Americans like to have their little independent laboratories. If one finds a solution, shouldn’t the government then be funding that as a nationwide strategy? What’s the point of the laboratory if we don’t use any of the results of the experiments?”

One such centrally applied solution has been the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), which has a demonstrated record of reducing food insecurity. However, it has also proven to be insufficient. On average, individual SNAP recipients only receive $1.40 per meal. With roughly 23% of the country in a state of food insecurity today (having increased from 11% in 2018), it is clear that additional and immediate actions are necessary to alleviate the hunger and malnutrition that endanger millions of Americans today. “There are so many fallouts that are going to hit the people who are always hit hardest, even harder,” says Cauble-Johnson. 

Although the pandemic has shifted some of the work of these organizations, these difficulties and calls for change are not novel; they are demands that have echoed in the chambers of the Oval Office for decades, if not centuries. “In general, COVID-19 has exposed a lot of the inequities that we already knew existed in our neighborhood. Things like affordable housing or unemployment that we’re experiencing at magnitude as a country are things that have been happening in East Garfield park for many, many years. The reality is that Breakthrough has been responding for 30 years. We’re directly addressing a lot of the symptoms of racism in our neighborhood,” says Alexandra Cesario, director of development and communications at Breakthrough.

5. American privileges that should be human rights

“Food is political, water is political, healthcare is political. The fact that these things aren’t accessible to every living, breathing human being as basic human rights is absolute bullshit. All of these things are political because those in the select few determine who is deserving of basically living a life that sustains them,” says Brittney Thomas, the director of programs at the BSA, the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ center on the South Side of Chicago. As has been the case throughout American history, and now put into the forefront of the public eye, the disenfranchisement of Black and Brown communities has been endemic to America’s architecture. “This is going to continue to cascade as long as we allow the virus to flourish unchecked. The chickens have come home to roost here,” says Cauble-Johnson.

Despite the physical barriers that the pandemic has resurrected, these organizations take immense measures to continue to support and listen to their clients and communities. Perhaps these organizations can serve as a model for our larger society to engender local collaboration and mutual aid in the face of unprecedented challenges. These organizations rely heavily on the hands of volunteers and donations; this is an avenue where students like myself can take a step beyond the comfort of our homes to help form more equitable outcomes in our cities.

Thank you to Sara Ramos, Brittney Thomas from the Brave Space Alliance, Evan Cauble-Johnson from Inspiration Corporation, Ben Jaffe from Chicago Lights, Alexandra Cesario from Breakthrough, Plant Chicago, and Urban Growers Collective for speaking with me. If you enjoyed reading this, please consider donating to their causes via their websites. Thank you also to Dr. Heather Paxson and Mel Isidor for additional guidance.