The need for better and more sustainable methods of distributing food has become increasingly apparent as the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic lock-down have worn on and federal stimulus money has run out.
Food banks in Hyde Park and Kenwood have seen huge surges in demand over the past half year.
Now, two more organizations are expanding community-led food infrastructure in Hyde Park and the rest of the city. The first, The Love Fridge, is a mutual aid collective founded two months ago by Ramon Norwood, a music producer who’s been splitting his time during the pandemic between New York and Chicago.
The group has set up eight refrigerators in community areas across the city, where people can go to grab food stocked by neighborhood residents involved with the project.
Norwood, who graduated from Kenwood Academy in 2000, says he first came across the idea in Brooklyn. “I was already tapped into a lot of plant-based food stuff and community gardens, Black farmers. Some of that stuff started to come up in my feed and then I went to one in Bushwick, about 15 minutes from where I was staying,” he said. “And I was like, I’m gonna go to Chicago and start this up, it needs to happen.”
One of the group’s newest fridges is in the alleyway behind 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St. Norwood says the store reached out to The Love Fridge with the idea.
“We had a fridge in Bridgeport that someone donated. Myself and two other teammates went to pick that fridge up. We took it straight-shot to the bookstore, and they brought power for us out the back window,” he said.
But Norwood says that the point of the fridges isn’t just to provide people with a steady supply of free food, as much as that matters — it’s also about building the nodes of a different food system, one that gives members of a neighborhood, or city, the tools to help one another eat, and eat well.
“We really, basically, set up this infrastructure, provide some encouragement and support and get some partners in line,” he said. “But it’s really important the community gets empowered, and they’re able to do this amongst each other.”
If one way to ensure there’s sustainable access to food is to give neighborhoods the right kind of infrastructure, another way is to bring it to people — as many of them and as often as possible.
That’s been the goal of Brave Space Alliance (BSA), an organization headquartered at Flood’s Hall, 1515 E. 52nd St., that provides programming and resources for LGBTQ individuals on the South and West sides. At the start of the pandemic, BSA began organizing a food and supply drive for people affected by the lock-down.
Gradually, the group started organizing food delivery to others in need, partnering with the nonprofit Center on Halsted and Chi City Foods, an urban farm located in Altged Gardens. LaSaia Wade, the executive director of BSA, estimates that they have served 45,000 people so far.
This week, the Chicago Region Food System Fund announced its third round of COVID-related grant recipients, doling out $1.7 million to 81 grantees. Among them was BSA, which received $100,000 to continue expanding its food delivery program.
“Our baseline is we want to continue to serve the people during this time, and to serve them in a way where we’re not making them feel as though they are being watched or overseen in any way,” said Wade.
Wade also said that, as a trans-led organization that serves LGBTQ+ people, BSA has received some “pushback” from other groups — one church rejected some food that the organization dropped off. “I think that’s the heaviest thing on us right now,” she said. “It’s just pushing through the power dynamics throughout Chicago.”
Still, Wade said, she's able to look past that, describing herself as someone with "a certain type of power and the ability to be able to serve everyone, regardless of race, creed, or racist ideology."
And so BSA is continuing to deliver food to every part of the city — primarily the neighborhoods on the South and West sides most in need — and parts of the suburbs, though Wade said they still don’t have enough resources to meet the demand. Both she and Norwood are worried about the winter, when there may be another surge in COVID cases.
“The best thing for us is to let people know that we are still in business,” she said. “We’ll do as much and work as hard as we can to make sure people are fed during this pandemic.”
To get involved with The Love Fridge, or to find a fridge location, visit thelovefridge.com.
For more information on Brave Space Alliance’s COVID-19 resources, including how to donate, volunteer, and request aid, visit bravespacealliance.org/covid-19.