The Food Insecurity Crisis in Chicago

By Sarah Abuosba, Bridget Aube and Janet Vivanco

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in food insecurity has become an increasing issue in the Chicagoland area.

Many individuals and families lost their jobs or loved ones over the course of the pandemic. There are some food pantries available for people to get food in Chicago. They understand their community needs them more than ever, now that everything is uncertain, especially knowing where their next meal will come from.

Raelene McLaughlin is a single mother of five who resides in the Chicagoland area and providing for her children has been a great struggle throughout their lives, but especially as the pandemic began.

In an interview with McLaughlin, she said, “Policies that do not support nutritional value enough in our diets are what makes those of us who can’t afford it settle for cheap food items with no nutritional value.”

For McLaughlin and her children, facing food insecurity has been an ongoing challenge with the means of consistent nutritional value not being emphasized enough through policies and availability.

The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

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McLaughlin and her children are not nearly the only ones who struggle by the food insecurity crisis. In fact, a 2019 report from the USDA concluded that approximately 10.5% (or about 13.7 million) of American households suffered some level of food insecurity.

Food insecurity is often used interchangeably with the term “hunger.”

According to Megan Bennett, the communications specialist at the Great Chicago Depository, “food insecurity is by definition, is the lack of consistent access to nutritious food and the key words here are nutritious and consistent. Food insecurity is not limited to hunger and hunger is simply the psychological condition of the result of food insecurity.”

It is important to note the report was conducted and released before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. While the report noted that food insecurity among households had reached a new low since 2011 when it reached a high of 14.1%, food insecurity still remains a pertinent issue, especially in major cities where access to fresh fruits and produce remains scarce in some communities.

Whether it is a mother like McLaughlin or a college student, the food insecurity crisis is concerning. For example, The University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) is the biggest university in the city of Chicago, with approximately 31,000 students enrolled in undergraduate studies.

While many students commute, UIC has thousands of students residing in student dorms in any given semester. UIC has a grand total of seven residence halls for undergraduate students- only two of these residence halls offer students personal kitchens, the rest only offer one communal kitchen per floor (or in the case of the Academic and Residential Complex, one kitchen for the entire nine floor residence hall).

The closest grocery store to a residence hall with a communal kitchen is a Mariano’s store on Halsted Street a little over a half mile from the closest dorm. For the residence halls with personal kitchens, the closest grocery store is a Jewel Osco on Canal Street approximately three-quarters of a mile from the hall.

With the knowledge that food deserts are a prominent issue in the city of Chicago, UIC opened a food pantry in 2014 in an effort to aid food insecure students on campus.

Jacqueline Tenorio, Health Education Coordinator for the UIC Wellness Center, said “the pop-up pantry has had a positive impact on food insecure students.”

To this day there is a stigma around food insecurity and social service programs like TANF and SNAP (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Tenorio said “students may feel ashamed or scared to take advantage of the pantry.”

Tenorio also said, “Asking for help in general is scary and intimidating, I know I was very scared to even ask for help for my chemistry classes and so forth,” she said. “That’s why we don’t steer students away at all. All registered UIC students are welcomed to shop at our pantry.”

Tenorio continued that the Wellness Center makes it a priority to make the pantry experience as close as possible to the experience of being in a grocery store, “We try to make this a pleasant experience, we try to give our pantry users dignity.”

Tenorio went on to excitedly describe the cheerful ambiance the pantry provides its users within the temporary space they occupy in Student Center East- from a detail as simple as playing cheerful music for students to a detail as planned as giving students grocery baskets to enhance the shopping experience

“Since the pandemic has started, it has exasperated many different challenges such as anxiety, stress, loneliness, job instability, financial constraints and so much more,” Tonorio said. “So yes, it’s fair to say that has also affected food insecure individuals. Since the pandemic started, many individuals who had not been insecure found themselves food insecure for the first very first time.”

Bennett said, “It’s crazy how it took a worldwide pandemic to realize people are food insecure and there should be more policies and assistance provided for these people.”

According to Bennett, “Feeding America is where my organization primarily receives our information and their current projections is about 12 percent in 2021 — about 613,000 people and it was about 14 percent in 2020 — Over 700,000 people when 2018, pre COVID-19 was about 11 percent which is about 480,000 people.”

While the pandemic spiked the number of people who faced food insecurity, it still was an issue that many people faced prior to the pandemic.

According to Chicago’s Food Bank, “Over 2,500 families worth of food was prepared for people to come to collect for the holiday season. That is about the total amount that they were able to provide to the community, which is a great contribution to help these families.”

McLaughlin, like many others in need of feeding themselves and their families, finds herself visiting food pantries at least 1–2 times a month to ensure her family is fed. She said, “food pantries have become more and more accessible since the pandemic; a great aid to my family.”

The impact on food insecurity is most strongly hitting the Black and Latino communities in Chicago, due to systemic inequalities that have been going on for many years. According to Chicago’s Food Bank, These communities have also been found to be more likely to contract the virus and experience a lot more of the negative effects of the pandemic.

“Those with disabilities, those with fixed incomes, communities of color are disproportionately affected by food insecurity; leading to hunger,” Bennett said. “There can’t be food justice without racial justice.

McLaughin said, “Whether it is a pandemic or not, food insecurity is an issue that needs to be further addressed.”

To properly tackle food insecurity, it is important to acknowledge it will take a very long time, especially after the pandemic’s damaging effects.

Bennett said, “This is not something that’s going to end when the worst of the COVID-19 virus itself — — the health aspects of it are over, the economic impacts of COVID-19 are not going to be over for a very long time.”

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