4 West, South side groups win new round of American Heart Association’s social impact grants
A cooperative food service contractor owned and operated by formerly incarcerated individuals, and a nonprofit training low-income adults and returning citizens for manufacturing jobs, are among the groups awarded second-round grants from the year-old Social Impact Fund.
Renee Taylor was 19 when she went to prison, earning a college degree in general studies, horticulture and culinary arts during her 25 years there.
When she got out in 2013, the folks at her transitional housing helped her get a restaurant job, where she was working in December when she heard ChiFresh Kitchen was recruiting.
The new social enterprise launched by three prison reform advocates sought formerly incarcerated individuals interested in owning and operating a cooperative food service.
“It was a great opportunity to be part of something that didn’t discriminate against people with backgrounds, and to be able to say I owned something was awesome,” said Taylor, 40, of Englewood.
She and four others eventually became founding owner/workers, when ChiFresh opened in March at food and beverage incubator The Hatchery Chicago in Garfield Park.
A contractor providing nutrient-dense meals to institutions serving food-insecure residents on the West and South sides, ChiFresh is among four social enterprises here splitting $450,000 in second-round grants from a year-old American Heart Association initiative.
Launched last September to support efforts to improve health in marginalized communities nationwide, AHA’s Social Impact Fund has to date invested $4.5 million in 33 entities in Boston; Chicago; Flint, Michigan; New York City; Oakland, Callifornia; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. The latest winners are being announced Monday.
“We prepare fresh, individually packaged meals for institutions like nursing homes, charter schools, the YMCA,” lawyer and co-founder Camille Kerr said.
“Worker ownership is big right now as a tool to create access to employment for people who have barriers, folks who were formerly incarcerated, folks with mixed documentation status. There’s increased interest in using it to create economic self-autonomy.”
ChiFresh will use its grant to complete purchase and build out of its new 6,000-square-feet headquarters at 71st & King Drive, where it plans to ramp up production to 5,000 meals per week and hire up to 75 formerly incarcerated workers over the next five years.
The Social Impact Fund targets grassroots solutions for economic empowerment, jail/prison recidivism, housing, transportation, healthy food access, quality healthcare and education.
Seeded by a $1 million Blue Cross Blue Shield investment, the grants seek to address America’s health gaps by income and race, by addressing the social determinants that fuel them. Three Chicago enterprises won in last year’s initial funding — Forty Acres Fresh Market, Sweet Potato Patch and West Side United.
“Long before the coronavirus pandemic, structural racism prevented many Chicagoans from accessing the health care, job opportunities and resources they need to be healthy,” said AHA Metro Chicago Executive Director Lisa Hinton.
“COVID-19 shone a spotlight on those inequities, as members of the Black and Latino communities are among the hardest hit. We are proud to invest in organizations on Chicago’s South and West sides that are creating sustainable solutions.”
According to County Health Rankings, only 20% of a person’s overall health is determined by clinical medical care; the rest is determined by socio-economic factors and environment. AHA notes some 50 million Americans are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease due to lack of the most basic needs.
The Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) in Austin sees such need every day.
The 35-year-old nonprofit, one of the four Chicago winners of the second-round grants, provides technical manufacturing skills training, along with wrap-around support services, to low-income adults, returning citizens and the homeless, or housing insecure.
“We focus on the unemployed and underemployed,” said JARC President Regan Brewer.
“We provide a lot lot of support services, financial education and one-on-one coaching. We believe that it’s not enough just to get a job. You have to be able to manage your finances and build wealth,” Brewer said.
“You might get your foot in the door as an entry-level machine operator, but we’re providing skills that can help you move up the career pathway. Improved financial health leads to improved physical health.”
JARC trains some 100 individuals each year for positions specifically sought by employers. In Austin, manufacturing is the largest employment sector, yet only 6% of neighborhood residents have those jobs.
For Austin resident Adonis Summerville, a 32-year-old father of three, it changed his life.
He had been working at a Bolingbrook Walmart, lost the job due to unpredictability with his 2 1⁄2-hour commute — and was couch-surfing — when he learned about JARC.
After graduating from the program, he worked his way up at area manufacturing firms over the next six years. “When I first started, I was making $10 an hour. Within a year and a half, I was making $20 an hour. Within six years, I was making close to six figures,” Summerville said.
But in 2017, he gave up a lucrative job to return to JARC — as senior metalworks instructor.
“When I came back to work for Jane Addams, they questioned why I would want the pay cut. I told them everything I’ve achieved began here. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I owe it to the next person to help them change their life the way I did mine.”