Transforming the Emergency Food System with an Eye on Equity: A Q&A with Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Nicole Robinson

Nicole Robinson Greater Chicago Food Depository

In early 2020, one out of ten people living in Cook County, IL, were food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to enough nutritious food to lead an active, healthy lifestyle. Due to systemic racial inequity and longstanding disinvestment in communities of color, however, Black and Latinx households faced food insecurity rates more than double those of their white, non-Hispanic neighbors.   

And then the pandemic began.   

While nearly everyone has been affected by COVID-19 in some way, those most adversely impacted by the pandemic also live in communities most at risk of food insecurity. By the end of 2020, food insecurity rates in Cook County had risen 51 percent, with communities of color continuing to bear the brunt of the burden. Between September 2020 and February 2021, 36 percent of Black households with children in Cook County and 28 percent of Latinx households with children experienced food insecurity, compared to 17 percent of white households.   

Amid an unparalleled crisis disproportionately affecting communities of color, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) recognized the urgent need to bolster the emergency food system in Cook County, particularly in predominately Black and Latinx neighborhoods of the West and South Sides of Chicago. Toward that end, GCFD allocated $5 million in grants to offset increased costs for the 700 food pantries and soup kitchens in its network in Cook County, expand access to food in high-priority communities by investing in existing partners’ infrastructure, and identify new partners to operate food pantries.  

In a Nutshell

What: Q&A with Nicole Robinson, Chief Partnerships & Programs Officer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), about how the pandemic has affected food pantries, what that means for their facilities, how GCFD is working to increase equity in the emergency food system, and more.
Sector: Healthy Foods
Location: Chicago, IL

To ensure maximum impact from its investment, GCFD has engaged IFF’s real estate team in Illinois to work with grantees launching new pantries in South and West Side neighborhoods. IFF is providing guidance on the feasibility of six projects, including budget, scope, and timeline, as well as owner’s representation when needed to support grantees with challenges like zoning, accessibility, and design.   

With the expansion of food pantries ongoing as part of a broader transformation of the local emergency food system, we talked to GCFD Chief Partnership & Programs Officer Nicole Robinson about how the pandemic has affected food pantries, how GCFD is working to increase equity in the emergency food system, what that means for their facilities, and more.   

IFF: How has the pandemic changed the landscape for emergency food assistance in Cook County?

Robinson: I’d describe what’s happening now as a transformation, and it’s largely a matter of equity. Before the pandemic, when an individual or family made the decision to seek food assistance – which no one wants to do – their experience at the pantry they visited really depended on where they were in Cook County. And that was a reflection of the overall inequity that we see across the county, but especially in the communities on the South and West sides of Chicago that don’t have grocery stores or an abundance of other services and amenities to support residents. The pantries that operated in those communities were extremely committed and did great work, but they were almost always working with shoestring budgets and without access to all the resources they truly needed. There were also communities that didn’t have pantries at all.  

The pandemic has shined a light on food insecurity, and there have been new resources available as a result. This has provided an opportunity for us to be more creative and to embrace new ways of bringing equity to the emergency food system in Cook County.   

IFF: How is GCFD going about that?

Robinson: There are 200 communities across Cook County – 77 in the City of Chicago – and 40 that the Food Depository has identified as most affected by the pandemic, in terms of economic impact and the need for food. Before the pandemic, these 40 communities were experiencing food insecurity, unemployment, and poverty at double digit rates, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated that.   

We’ve focused on responding to the immediate needs created by the pandemic in these communities, but we’ve also seized the opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient emergency food system overall. We want to approach things in a different way moving forward because, in the pre-pandemic world, many of the facilities that housed food pantries in our priority communities could only offer the bare minimum to clients in need of emergency food assistance. It was about having tables to display food, the space to set up the tables, dealing with the logistics of how to operate the pantry, and coordinating volunteers. It wasn’t unusual to see pantry facilities that were missing windows or other necessary infrastructure.  

We’re going to our partners in the 40 priority communities we’ve identified and asking them to tell us what they need to bring joy, dignity, and engagement to their pantry space in a way that we’ve not seen on the South and West Sides of the city before.

Now, we’re going to our partners in the 40 priority communities we’ve identified and asking them to tell us what they need to bring joy, dignity, and engagement to their pantry space in a way that we’ve not seen on the South and West Sides of the city before. We’re also focused on ways to make the experience of visiting the pantry more convenient. It wasn’t unusual for pantries to be open once a week for a couple of hours before the pandemic. But if you’re a family coping with lots of challenges, and the adults are working and the kids are going to school, it’s not realistic to expect them to be able to shop for food during such a limited window of time. Even if they were able to make it to the pantry during that time, there likely wasn’t someone there to help them enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is the most effective way to reduce food insecurity.      

We want to support these communities in creating food pantry facilities that encourage families who don’t want to need food assistance to seek out services because it’s an inviting space; ensure that pantries have the infrastructure they need to bring the whole kitchen to the pantry in terms of having culturally relevant food available to clients; encourage the expansion of operating hours to make emergency food assistance as accessible as possible to those who need it; and offer training and resources to pantries so that they can offer additional amenities to visitors like SNAP enrollment, nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and connections to workforce development opportunities.    

IFF: What kind of feedback has GCFD received from pantries about what they envision for their facilities and what they need to bring the joy you mentioned to the client experience? 

Robinson: The physical space is at the center of many of the conversations we’ve had with individual food pantries. Whether it’s an existing pantry that wants to transform their facility, or a new pantry that’s acquiring a facility that they want to build out, there’s been a common focus on how entering and being in the space makes someone feel. The name of the pantry influences that. So does the signage displayed, the paint colors used, and whether there’s artwork inside or outside of the pantry that reflects the community. If you commission local artists to paint murals, and those murals are authentic to the community, it has an impact. Those are only a few examples, but that’s the type of feedback we’ve heard.    

A mural in the American Association of Single Parents' new food pantry in Dolton, IL
A mural in the American Association of Single Parents’ new food pantry in Dolton, IL

There has also been a common theme regarding how the pantries are configured to distribute food. One way to make the space more inviting is to mimic the feel of a traditional corner store or small format grocery store. That means doing away with picnic or folding tables many pantries have traditionally used to display food and replacing them with beautiful shelving and racking and installing infrastructure like glass-doored refrigerators so patrons can see the items they’re selecting just like they would in a store.   

Simply having the capacity for cold storage at pantries in the core neighborhoods we’re focusing on is very important. During the height of the pandemic, most pantries in those communities didn’t have the ability to store items that required refrigeration on-site. That meant the Food Depository was storing items in our warehouse until pantries were ready to distribute them, which was a major logistical challenge. By expanding the pantries’ cold storage capacity, we can deliver more product to them, which can then be held in storage in the community where it’s needed. That’s a much more efficient system than has been possible in the past.   

IFF: Have there been any other learnings or new ideas to increase food security in Cook County that have come about in the last 18 or so months as a result of the pandemic? 

Robinson: When we talk about transforming the emergency food system, there are four pillars to our strategy: growing the capacity of partners in our network; diversifying the food supply; unlocking policy and advocacy; and building economic stability. As I mentioned earlier, there have been new resources available during the pandemic that have made it possible to be more creative in how we look at the entire system. That’s resulted in ideas and partnerships that might not have happened otherwise in each of the four areas I just outlined.    

In partnership with IFF, we’re growing the capacity of partners in our network by supporting facility modifications. But not every pantry has a facility that can accommodate renovations to add retail space or cold storage. What if we could also convert shipping containers to meet both of those needs and place them on-site at food pantries? That would instantly expand the capacity of members in our network who are limited in their ability to modify their existing building.    

Another example – this one related to diversifying the food supply – is a new partnership with Growing Home, an organization based in Englewood that provides job-readiness training by teaching people how to farm. They’re growing collard greens locally that we’re now purchasing to distribute to pantries in the same South Side community where they’re grown.      

To bring equity to the emergency food system, we needed to do things differently, and the pandemic has pushed everyone working in this space to imagine what that looks like.

There’s also innovation around how to use technology to better connect families with resources that help them achieve food security. Through data mapping, we were able to identify the 40 communities I’ve mentioned already where we needed to focus resources to strengthen existing pantries and open new ones to meet community demand. Now we’re doing something similar with benefits like SNAP. By analyzing data, we’re able to identify specific populations in the community, like older adults who are under-enrolled in the program. We’re taking that information and partnering with community organizations in Englewood, Austin, and North Lawndale that serve those populations to design marketing campaigns that will drive enrollment and advocate for policies that make it easier for those populations to sign up for benefits. That helps increase food security, but it also stimulates the local economy when more people are using their federally funded SNAP benefits to buy groceries in their neighborhoods.    

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention a new partnership with the City of Chicago to establish a Food Equity Council that is looking at how we can achieve food equity in Chicago across the entire food system by removing barriers to urban farming, supporting BIPOC food entrepreneurs, and better connecting residents with nutrition programs and healthy, affordable food.  

Much of this targeted, community-based work is a silver lining of the pandemic. To bring equity to the emergency food system, we needed to do things differently, and the pandemic has pushed everyone working in this space to imagine what that looks like. I think we’ll look back on this experience and reflect on the opportunity it presented to shift the paradigm and transform how people get connected to food and how people connect in their communities.  

Learn more about IFF’s work to increase access to healthy foods in the Midwest.

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