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Half a million people in Cook County struggle with food insecurity during the pandemic — but you can help

Last year, the Greater Chicago Food Depository distributed more than 117 million pounds of food — the largest amount of food in the nonprofit’s history.

Food depository
Volunteers help break down and repackage food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository last year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

When the pandemic first hit last year, our nation suffered an almost instant spike in unemployment and poverty, especially among families with children. Millions of families turned to food pantries for the first time.

The demand was alarming, but the response was immense and admirable, especially here in Chicago. The Greater Chicago Food Depository distributed more than 117 million pounds of food — the largest amount of food in the nonprofit’s 42-year history.

The unemployment rate has fallen significantly since then but it has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, especially among Black Americans and other minority groups, and food pantries continue to see a great need, well above the norm.

In a newly released report, Feeding America projects that 613,360 — 11.8% — of Cook County residents this year will have lived in households that struggle with “food insecurity,” meaning they have less than reliable daily access to food, because of lack of a sufficient and steady income. This compares to the 481,720 — or 9.3% — of residents who found it difficult to afford food in 2019.

In that year — 2019 — we should note, the level of food insecurity was the lowest it has been in more than 20 years. Yet, even then, some 35 million Americans, including 11 million children, were found to be living in food-insecure household. A child in summer, when school was out, might have to go without lunch. An elderly man living alone might have nothing in the refrigerator for dinner — and no money in his wallet to buy it.

This is not actually surprising. For one, the pandemic’s negative impact on household incomes continues, with a lag in workers’ reentry into the workforce, and with many workers holding part-time jobs though they would prefer full-time employment. After the Great Recession, from December 2007 to June 2009, it took almost 10 years before food insecurity numbers fell to pre-recession levels.

With that in mind, the City of Chicago has created a new Food Equity Council. The council includes 24 members, ranging from city workers to leaders of community groups, and it has been given the job of reducing food insecurity in five ways:

Eliminating barriers to more and bigger food pantries; maximizing nutrition programs and benefits; eliminating barriers to urban farming; supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) food businesses, and leveraging City Hall’s procurement powers to support local BIPOC food growers along with businesses and producers.

The Food Equity Council emerged from a working group that started last year and included Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“To create results we have to be culturally humble and responsible to the needs of the community, while also being transparent about the methods and results of our work,” said Ruby Ferguson, the Food Depository’s food equity policy lead.

If you’d like to help, you can volunteer at a food pantry or kitchen in your community. Many pantries welcome the help. You can make a monetary donation. You can go to the website of Chicago’s remarkable hub and clearing house for this crucial work, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and sign up to volunteer or make a donate there. The link is: chicagosfoodbank.org.

The sad truth is that food security is a persistent reality for millions of Americans, though the severity of the problem ebbs and flows. And right now, due to the pandemic, the problem is flowing harder. In one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Nearly half a million people in Cook County, Feeding America estimates, are struggling with food insecurity at this moment. That shouldn’t sit well with anyone.

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