As food insecurity increases across Chicago amid the pandemic and holiday season, accessing food resources through public transportation remains a worry for many families and individuals in need.
“As we know on the South Side, there is food apartheid, or what others might call food deserts,” said Cosmos Ray of Bronzeville Kenwood Mutual Aid at a town hall discussion hosted by the Active Transportation Alliance (ATA) on Tuesday evening.
“As we do food rescue to redistribute food and wealth from across the city and country, there’s a transportation aspect that’s involved in that. We see a lot of our residents that have to travel on the bus to go get food.”
Ray said the Bronzeville Kenwood Mutual Aid serves about 150 to 200 families a week. At the peak of distribution, the mutual aid group made 50 food deliveries a week. Lately, the mutual aid group makes around 20 deliveries per week.
ATA, an organization that works to improve the safety of different transportation options in the city, recently conducted a survey on whether public transit has helped or hurt peoples’ food security and whether people have to take transit to other neighborhoods to get fresh food.
Out of a hundred respondents, two-thirds of people currently riding public transit feel uncomfortable because people aren’t following or enforcing COVID guidelines. Other reasons include lack of room for their food on public transit due to crowded buses and pantries being too far from public transit stops. Of the respondents who answered food pantry questions, 92% said they feel vulnerable utilizing public transportation to access food pantries.
“We know there’s a population of people who are disabled, immunocompromised, or seniors who just don’t feel comfortable going out, so we know there is a large swath of our neighbors not getting the support they need,” said Ray. “I know we could all do a better job canvassing neighbors and especially those most in need. If we are not addressing their needs, then what are we really doing?”
According to the survey, most respondents suggested food delivery or making a community landmark, such as a community center, a pick-up point for groceries to make food pantry access easier.
Jan Deckenbach is the director of the Hyde Park Kenwood Food Pantry at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave., which also serves residents in Woodlawn, South Shore and Bronzeville.
She said that the pantry does allow people to pick up food packages for other individuals, but does not have a delivery function.
“The Greater Chicago Food Depository has hundreds of member agencies,” said Deckenbach. “Our food pantry will never turn anyone away during the pandemic, though we did have geographical boundaries previously.”
According to Deckenbach, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) is making a push backed by grants to start more food pantries in underserved Black and Brown communities.
“They can't force anyone to start a food pantry, you have to go to them,” Deckenbach said. “If people in the mutual aid networks find out about this and spread the information around, perhaps people that want to band together to start food pantries will find out about these resources that are available to them.”
Deckenbach said the pantry is open to coordinating with mutual aid networks for people who require delivery.
And while Hyde Park Kenwood Food Pantry, in particular, does not require an ID, it does ask people questions such as where they live, what their names are, how many folks are in their household as a required part of the food depository’s auditing process, according to Deckenbach.
“We give away federal food, so I sign federal contracts,” said Deckenbach. “This is part of their accountability structure, but we do give food to everyone.”
As a means of maintaining physical distance during distributions, the Hyde Park Kenwood Food Pantry is not looking for additional volunteers but is looking for financial donations.
“Even though the food depository (GCFD) is giving all the food we get from them for free, we are still needing to purchase food in order to provide fresh produce, especially to our recipients,” said Deckenbach. “That’s something that we want to get a lot of in every single distribution.”
For information about starting a food pantry, or to donate to the Hyde Park Kenwood Food Pantry, contact Jen Deckenbach email@example.com.
You can stream the full meeting of Transit Justice Talk: Food Access and Public Transit Intersectionality at youtube.com/watch?v=ltRy6WdUu14.
Correction: This story has been corrected to remove a quote from a town hall participant that inaccurately claimed the Greater Chicago Food Depository requires a form of ID or a sobriety check before people can access a food pantry. The GCFD requires neither. We regret the error.