Stacey Minor had been interviewing potential staff all day. Several hours later, in the evening, when she was still overseeing workers lugging boxes of food to be refrigerated, she started dragging a little.
“I’m a little tired. I have to hire nine more people,” said Minor, 47, founder and CEO of Sweet Potato Patch, a year-old firm that is using smart technology and GPS tracking systems to deliver healthy food options to residents living in Far South Side food deserts.
Extra workers are needed to keep up with a customer base steadily growing since she launched deliveries in December — especially now that she’s teamed up with the American Heart Association to target health disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Roseland-based startup — meeting the front and back end by sourcing food from struggling black farmers — has been sending fresh produce and ready-to-heat meals to 350 seniors in seven South Side communities since last week. Funded by AHA, the healthy meals will continue through mid-May.
Addressing the nation’s longstanding health gaps by income and race was the mission of AHA’s Social Impact Fund launched in September, with a $1 million Blue Cross Blue Shield investment. Minor was selected among 11 social enterprisers nationwide to receive first-round grants, sharing $300,000 with two other Chicago social enterprises.
The fund sought grassroots efforts that showed promise in combating social determinants of health like income, housing, education and food — determinants now thrust under a national spotlight by racial disparities in coronavirus deaths.
Glomming onto health disparities afflicting the black community such as the high rate of diabetes and hypertension, coronavirus has claimed more black lives than any other demographic.
Those health disparities have been fueled by social, economic and environmental determinants — only 20% of overall health is determined by clinical medical care.
“For quite a while, AHA has been focusing on social influencers of health, trying to partner with our communities to advance community-based solutions — and really looking at everything we do through an equity lens,” said AHA Chicago Executive Director Lisa Hinton.
“When the pandemic hit, obviously we started to see those with preexisting conditions like heart disease, older populations, and black and brown communities, getting harder hit. Aware of the challenges those communities face with access to healthy food, we knew the stay-at-home order was going to make that access much more difficult.”
In Illinois, African Americans, 15% of the state’s population, represented 37% of Illinois’ 1,688 COVID-19 deaths, as of Thursday. In Chicago, while 30% of the population, 56% of those 661 who died from coronavirus in the city were African Americans.
And 91% of Chicagoans who have died from COVID-19 had underlying conditions — predominantly diabetes, hypertension and lung disease.
With funding from the Abbott Fund, the AHA initially contracted with Minor to feed 100 seniors in Washington Heights, daily, for four weeks. Additional donations came from Cigna and Humana, and AHA scaled up its efforts. “I think we’re up to a commitment of just shy of 4,000 free, healthy meals for seniors in South Side neighborhoods,” Hinton said.
Sweet Potato Patch had “signed up 150 customers before AHA called. Now we’re delivering to over 500 people,” said Minor, who was raised in and spent most of her life in Roseland. Currently working from a temporary space, her company is building out warehouse headquarters in Auburn-Gresham.
“In Washington Heights, the seniors are receiving one substantial meal a day for four weeks. We’re doing single-week meal deliveries to seniors in Chatham, Douglas Park, Morgan Park, Roseland, Woodlawn and Washington Park, partnering with the Chicago Housing Authority to get meals to seniors in some housing developments in those neighborhoods,” she said.
Her head chef is Chicago Chef Julius Russell, lauded owner of A Tale of 2 Chefs. “The menu can range from traditional, to soul food, to, ‘Oh my God, I’m sitting in a fancy restaurant!’” Minor exclaimed.
Groups like DePaul University’s Multi-Faith Veterans Initiative, National Basketball Retired Players Association, Real Men Cook, and Apostolic Church of God, have supported her efforts, which address not only food insecurity, but jobs for ex-offenders as well, through a second chance program run by Inspiration Corporation.
“We sourced kitchen staff from them. It’s amazing to hear these individuals talk about our work, saying, ‘Wow, not only are we doing what we love, but we’re giving back to the community we grew up in,’” Minor said. “They’re excited to help ensure people in food deserts have easier access to healthy foods, and black farmers, outlets for their products.”