As winter approaches and coronavirus cases surge, fight against hunger continues

Lucía Angel and Jorge Saldarriaga, founders of Grocery Run Club, an organization that provides produce and everyday necessities to underserved communities in Chicago, near their office in West Town. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A report from Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks, examined the impact COVID-19 will have on access to food. It projected Cook County will have 785,890 food-insecure people in 2020, the third-most in the country. If you’d told Lucía Angel and Jorge Saldarriaga in February they’d spend the summer and fall feeding hungry people in Chicago, they probably would’ve laughed.
The pair launched Grocery Run Club in July, one of many efforts in the city started to respond to the global pandemic that pushed many Chicago families into poverty and created a dire need for access to good food.
“Did we expect to do this? 100% not. But do I think this is a reflection of our communities and our Latinx heritage? Yes. 100%,” Saldarriaga said as a truck, beeping loudly, backed into a loading dock to drop off food.
“I couldn’t be happier.”
Other recent efforts include a food drive that started in one neighborhood and branched out into dozens of locations, and a modified bus bringing fresh produce to food deserts.
Grocery Run Club’s concept was simple: collect money from friends, run to the store, buy groceries and drop them off in places of need.
The pandemic has shown the need for Grocery Run Club and similar efforts. The group’s work has grown to meet increasing demand; they now use a West Town warehouse to store pallets of food before it is delivered to places like alt_Market.
But the next couple of months should alarm people, Angel said.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Juvenal Reyes (left) delivers boxes of kefir to Jorge Saldarriaga (right), founder of Grocery Run Club, at the group’s West Town storage facility.

On Nov. 13, the resurgent coronavirus hit a sad milestone, as Illinois reported 15,415 new cases — more new coronavirus cases in a single day than any other state in the country had recorded at that point. (California and Texas set new records this week.) And while the daily case tally has receded slightly since then, the continued surge, a struggling economy, a troubled job market, compounded with falling temperatures, have groups like Grocery Run Club worried for the future.
“We know that unemployment rates potentially could rise again. We know that this virus isn’t going anywhere. We know that people are having the most difficult times that they’ve ever experienced,” Angel said. “The majority of us are closer to making one wrong move and ending up in poverty or ending up without a roof over our head.”
Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks, released a report examining the local impact COVID-19 will have on access to food. It concluded Cook County is projected to have 785,890 food-insecure people in 2020, the third-most in the country.
The report also projected 239,130 children will struggle to find quality food in Cook County, the fourth-most in the country.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a public health and economic crisis, the effects of which are widespread,” the report said. “The repercussions will include added hardship for already vulnerable populations as well as a significant increase in the number of people experiencing food insecurity.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
South Shore resident Alexandra Antoine, 31, enters Fresh Moves Mobile Market outside Howard Brown Health, 641 W. 63rd St. in Englewood, earlier this month. The converted bus started selling produce on the South, West and Northwest Sides Nov. 9.

Alex Esparza is president of Economic Strategies Development Corporation. Before the pandemic, his organization’s primary function was to foster economic growth in Pilsen. After the first statewide stay-at-home order in March, Esparza saw a huge problem brewing — people losing jobs, businesses closing for good.
When it became clear the shutdown would stretch on, Esparza used his relationships in the business community to organize a food drive. They called it “Food for Hope” and held it in Pilsen.
Food for Hope has since spent over $3 million and expanded to over 30 neighborhoods. It offers a drive-thru service for those in need to pick up boxes of food. Esparza estimates they have served about 60,000 families.
The organization has also added drop-off services for seniors and essential workers within a 25-mile radius of his Pilsen office.
At one of his events, he said, a woman in line driving “an expensive-looking Audi” piqued his interest.
“I’ll admit I was a little judgmental — I wanted to ask why she was waiting in line,” Esparza said. “So I approached her and asked.”
He was surprised and disheartened by her story. The woman had a great job as a paralegal but when the law office she worked with started cutting back, she was the first to go. Then her husband lost his job.
“You just never know what a person is going through and it is on us to be there for them when they are in need,” Esparza said. “That is why I am losing sleep over what’s to come.”
The rising number of coronavirus cases will prevent people from finding new work and still more people will lose their jobs. Cold weather also threatens his operation.
“We had the opportunity to help people and at least we were covered by Mother Nature’s nicer side, but now we are going up against winter,” Esparza said.
“How do we get the food to the families that need it?” he asked. “What’s going to happen when that family can’t leave their homes anymore to wait in line because we are having a blizzard?”
Frigid temperatures also threaten his delivery services.
“We deliver to 630 people, mostly seniors, and what’s going to happen when we can’t deliver because my van can’t move because of the snow?”
Also bringing food to areas struggling with the pandemic is Urban Growers Collective. The organization’s Fresh Moves Mobile Market converted a bus into farmers market that offers quality food at a discounted price.
The “produce aisle on wheels” will visit 15 South and West side locations every week. Dates, times and locations are on the map below:

“We know that the areas we service are hardest hit by the pandemic at nearly three times the rate of other areas in Chicago,” said Laurell Sims, co-founder and CEO of Urban Growers Collective. “As the cases in the city rise, we know that people getting access to fresh food is both critical and a fundamental right.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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