Working as a teacher, Dr. Nicole Howell-Scott used to sit in her car in the morning before heading into work and feel nauseous. Though she liked her job, her anxiety stemmed from the unshakeable feeling that the career she had chosen wasn’t what she was meant to do. Luckily for Dr. Scott, it wasn’t difficult to find the inspiration to pursue her true calling because of her own experience as a single mother to a young son.
Despite graduating from college and working full-time, Dr. Scott and her son relied on food pantries to make ends meet. Knowing that her experience mirrored that of many other single parents – and that there were limited supports available to single parents who didn’t qualify for government assistance programs – Dr. Scott founded the American Association of Single Parents (AASP) in 2001 to help single-parent families achieve economic security and become agents of change in their communities.
In a Nutshell
What: A Q&A with Dr. Nicole Howell-Scott covering her professional journey and motivation for founding the American Association of Single Parents, an overview of the organization’s recently opened food pantry in Chicago’s South Suburbs, the importance of having a quality facility for emergency food distribution, and more.
Sector: Workforce development, healthy foods, youth services
Location: Dolton, IL
In its first few years in operation, the AASP provided emergency food assistance to families in need, along with other basic supports. Over time, the organization has evolved to more holistically support roughly 750 single parents annually with a variety of programming designed to educate them, support them in their pursuit of personal and professional goals, and provide them with the resources necessary for their families to thrive.
Despite the organization’s broadened focus, it still meets single-parent families’ immediate needs, and its capacity to do so increased significantly earlier this year. In September, the AASP opened the Free-N-Deed Market, a 2,600-square-foot food pantry in Dolton, IL, that looks and feels far more like a high-end grocery store than a location where families go as a last resort when experiencing food insecurity. That is by design, as the buildout of the market was supported by IFF’s real estate team as part of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s initiative to expand access to healthy foods in under-resourced communities while increasing equity in Cook County’s emergency food system.
With the Free-N-Need Market now operating, IFF sat down with Dr. Scott to learn more about her professional journey, AASP’s work, the importance of having a quality facility for emergency food distribution, and more.
IFF: Can you tell us about your background and what led to you founding the AASP?
Dr. Scott: I became a single mom in my fifth month of pregnancy when my son’s dad decided that he didn’t want to be a father, and it was through the experiences and challenges of my own situation that the AASP came about. I was a college graduate working full-time after my son was born, and we had a roof over our heads. But education for my son was my biggest priority, and I was sending him to private school. I had enough income that we didn’t qualify for governmental assistance programs, but something had to give. For us, it was food. We didn’t eat out much and went to food pantries regularly. In fact, when my son was young, he thought that was the way that everybody got groceries.
I knew that if I was experiencing these challenges, there were other parents out there who were going through the same thing. And that’s what pushed me to launch the organization. Ever since then, my focus has been on growing the organization and finding new ways to support single parents.
Early on, I decided that I wanted to create an emergency food assistance program since that was my biggest challenge as a single parent. I used to hand out food from my car and was constantly looking for partners to help grow the program. Things developed organically from there. We started a summer camp and then a program for kids before and after school. The Greater Chicago Food Depository started supporting our work in 2003 through our summer meals program, and that eventually grew into the Free-N-Deed Market.
IFF: Why was it important to you to have a dedicated facility for emergency food distribution?
Dr. Scott: I remember how I felt going to the food pantry as a young parent. Initially I was embarrassed and felt a sense of shame. I graduated from college and was working full-time, but I still needed the help. I didn’t tell my family or my friends that that was how I was making ends meet.
People who are hungry should have a space where they can be proud to shop
Part of the embarrassment I felt was rooted in how the food pantry looked and what the experience was like going there for help. I’d pull up in my car and someone would give me a box with whatever food they had at the time. One experience in particular stands out. Someone handed me the box of food that day and said that the bread in it had some mold on it, but that I could just cut it off, and that the eggs were past the sell-by date but were still good. I took the food because my son and I needed it, but who actually wants to eat that and to get the food they need in that way?
Because of experiences like that, I always felt like it was important to have a space where people could come to pick up their food that looked and felt like an actual store. It couldn’t be in an old church basement, and there needed to be fresh food that was both visible and available. People who are hungry should have a space where they can be proud to shop.
IFF: How did you get to the point of being able to develop your own facility?
Dr. Scott: When the pandemic hit, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) was looking for organizations to open pop-up pantries to meet the increased demand for emergency food assistance, and I definitely wanted AASP to be a part of that. It was about serving people during a time of need, and I didn’t realize then that it would turn into an opportunity to build out our own permanent facility. We moved forward with the pop-up pantry and, once that ended, GCFD was offering grants to build permanent facilities. We applied and received the grant, and that made it possible for us to open the Free-N-Deed Market.
I am excited about the entire space. I love how we’re able to set up the fresh produce, because that’s part of what makes it look like a market. I love how people are able to come in and pull the freezer doors open and get eggs and milk and cheese.
IFF: What’s your favorite part of the facility?
Dr. Scott: I can’t pick just one part, because I am excited about the entire space. I love how we’re able to set up the fresh produce, because that’s part of what makes it look like a market. I love how people are able to come in and pull the freezer doors open and get eggs and milk and cheese. We have a partnership with GCFD and another food bank in Bloomington, IL, and so we have a great variety of items available for people to choose from. Watching them move through the space and seeing their excitement about the options is unbelievable. When we first opened, we had large shrimp in the cooler, and that alone changed the experience for the better for everyone there that day.
All of the furnishings are contributing to that same sense of pride in the space. We put the fresh produce in planter boxes, and they’re stained to match the barn doors at the entrance. There are also murals on the wall by a Chicago artist named Damon Lamar Reed, and he did a phenomenal job with them. Those type of design features change the entire feel of visiting to get your food.
IFF: Beyond AASP’s work in the emergency food space, how else has the organization evolved to support single-parent families?
Dr. Scott: Over time, our approach has become more holistic, and we do our best to meet parents and children where they are. We have discovered that most single parents fall into one of two categories. One set is really just looking for help to meet their basic needs. People in the other group are usually professionals who are looking for something beyond a food pantry or help with a utility bill. They often want to go to school to pursue a new career or maybe even start their own organization, and they need some support to make that possible. Our programs need to work for parents in both groups, and we also need to motivate the parents focused on immediate needs to think beyond that so that they can become change agents in their communities.
We do help with utility bills and provide emergency food assistance, but we also offer a curriculum for economic empowerment that includes workshops on topics like financial literacy and budgeting, bring in outside speakers and create opportunities for single parents to talk through the challenges they’re facing through programs like MOM911, and host events like job readiness boot camps. That’s an area that has grown over time, and we now have two dedicated programs for employment training. The last component of our work is educational support for children through before- and after-school programs and a summer day camp to help them retain what they’ve learned the previous school year and to prepare them for the next school year.
IFF: You’ve been doing this work for more than 20 years…do you have a favorite success story?
Dr. Scott: There are several that stand out, but I’ll tell you about the most recent one. When this parent initially came to AASP, she was struggling with four kids. It was really tough for her. But everything started to change once her kids were enrolled in our Academics Creating Excellence (ACE) program, which offers educational support to students by assisting with homework and tutoring. I explained to her that we were there to help support her, and that even though the program ends at 7 p.m., we’d stay open longer if there was something she needed to do that prevented her from picking them up by then. That small amount of support for her opened the door for so much more.
She started attending some of our workshops and taking part in other programs, and she eventually decided to go back to school. First, she became a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). Once she had accomplished that, we encouraged her to keep going – which she did – and she got certified as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). I asked her at that point why she’d stop after coming so far, and she ended up continuing with her education and becoming a Registered Nurse (RN).
One of the things we always say to our parents is that “if you want to change your narrative, you have to change what you’re doing.” And we’ll find a way to help with that in any way we can.
One of the things we always say to our parents is that “if you want to change your narrative, you have to change what you’re doing.” And we’ll find a way to help with that in any way we can, whether it’s waiving after-school fees for their children, or paying for a textbook, or whatever other need that exists. She was a great example of what that looks like, and that’s the reason that I don’t feel like I’m going to work every morning after 20 years of doing this. It doesn’t feel like work at all when you see how it’s positively impacting a family.
Learn more about the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s work to increase equity in the emergency food system and how IFF’s real estate team is supporting food pantries like the Free-N-Deed Market in pursuit of that goal.
Photo Gallery: The American Association of Single Parents’ Free-N-Deed Market
Click the image below to see photos of the Free-N-Deed Market.