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CPS to resume food distribution program after safety concerns led to day-long suspension

The district, the nation’s third largest, has given out more than 12.5 million meals since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

A line of parents wait for bags with free breakfast and lunch meals for students at William P. Nixon Elementary School, March 19, 2020.
A line of parents wait for bags with free breakfast and lunch meals for students at William P. Nixon Elementary School.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Public Schools plans to resume meal distribution Tuesday after a day-long suspension Monday because of safety concerns surrounding looting and protests around the city.

The district, the nation’s third largest, has given out more than 12.5 million meals since the start of the coronavirus pandemic through a food program that has been widely praised by parents who rely on schools as a primary food source. Of CPS’ 355,000 students, 271,000 come from low-income families and about 17,000 are homeless.

“We know our meal sites serve as a critical community resource and we are ready to resume this essential service for our families tomorrow following an assessment of ongoing activities,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a news release. Chicago police will help with security in the areas around school pick-up sites, she said.

The decision to suspend the program late Sunday night faced immediate criticism and was an abrupt change from a letter sent to parents earlier in the evening by Jackson that said the district would continue to provide free meals for all students.

Shortly before 10:30 p.m., the district posted on its social media accounts that “based on the evolving nature of activity across the city, we are suspending grab-and-go meal sites and all other school and administrative office activities tomorrow.” CPS said staff will work from home and remote learning will continue Monday.

Workers’ access to public transportation was one obstacle after the city shut down CTA routes Sunday night and reopened them at 6 a.m. Monday. Officials also worried there could be a shortage of staff available with many workers voicing concerns about their safety at distribution sites.

Jackson said at a Monday morning news conference that she made the decision to temporarily suspend the program because of safety concerns for food workers and families.

“This is a crisis. We are in crisis mode,” Jackson said. “I can tell you I live in these communities, the communities that have been shown on TV over the past few days. So I know, I have a good gut sense about the safety, and our goal is to make sure any program that we’re implementing is done with that in mind.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something happened to a student or family member while they were trying to go and get food,” she said. “We understand that food is a basic need, which is why CPS has distributed over 12 million meals since the pandemic occurred, and we look forward to getting back to doing that.”

The district noted Monday morning that families who have signed up for home delivery would continue to receive their food, and anyone looking to set up that service can call (773) 553-5437. Jackson said 18,000 meals were scheduled to be delivered to 3,000 homes Monday, and CPS has the capacity to take on more requests.

But that still left thousands looking for an alternative, as an average of 211,800 meals have been handed out daily since schools closed because of the coronavirus in mid-March.

Chance the Rapper tweeted Monday morning that “taking away the food isn’t the way to get people to calm down.”

The Chicago Teachers Union also criticized the move to cut school-site food pick-up: “CPS is already forcing children living in areas of extreme unrest and trauma into remote learning tomorrow. Now it’s cutting off their access to food.”

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, reached after the announcement, said only that she was “speechless.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), a frequent critic of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and member of the City Council’s progressive caucus, tweeted: “Who is making these decisions? Our families rely on this food. The food distribution at Nixon Elementary in 60639 (one of the ZIP codes hardest hit by COVID-19) runs out of meals every day. What even is the rationale here?”

Chicago has been the scene of many peaceful protests the past few days against police brutality, systemic oppression and the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd.

Aside from those gatherings, widespread looting, vandalism and destruction has hit businesses throughout the city, including many grocery stores and convenience stores on the South, Southwest and West sides, which are alternative places families would otherwise try to get food.

Jackson’s letter earlier Sunday largely addressed the issue of racism in the United States and her worries “as a mother of a black boy who is worried for him, and the millions of other black boys in our country.”

“I worry that when he leaves our home to ride bikes with his friends, he will come back to me as a headline, a hashtag, a rallying cry — an Ahmaud, a Breonna, a George,” Jackson wrote.

“We must acknowledge that far too many of us have come to accept fear and pain as part of normal life. Fear should not be the first thing we feel in the morning and the last thing we feel at night but it is for many in the African American community. If we are going to progress as a society, this moment must lead us to confront racism — in all of its forms — on a daily basis.”