February 19, 2021

Serving Up Hope: Tackling Food Insecurity in Chicago

by Sanjee Choudhuri

It’s an undeniable fact that food isn’t just something we need to survive, but something we consider an essential part of our humanity. We use food as a center to gather our family and friends around and we break bread to find common ground with one another. When we travel we find as much culture in a restaurant as we do in a museum, and as much history in a bowl of local fare than we do in any book. As a people, we’ve even elevated our food to direct artistic expression through gastronomy and fine dining. At the most personal level, there’s that one dish that no matter where else you’ve had it, you know your mom’s version is always going to be better. Food is a basic necessity that we can bend, shape, and use not only for it’s direct purpose of feeding us but to connect with our community and culture.

It’s important for us, however, to go back to the first point: food is something we need to survive. All those wonderful other uses we have for food live in parallel with our basic human need to eat for sustenance and nutrition. In many cases, especially for those in food insecure households, food is simultaneously a thing of comfort and stress, relief and anxiety.

Many of us don’t have to worry about where our next plate will come from but for those that do, that worry is just as constant as the hunger driven by it. At Activate:Chi, we firmly believe that there is no reason a single person in the City of Chicago should ever go hungry because of a lack of access to nutritional food. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that one in seven people in Chicago will experience food insecurity this year, making us the third highest city in the nation for the number of people who live in food-insecure households1. It’s in this fight against hunger and pursuit for equity in nutrition where food banks and food pantries come in.

“Food insecurity is not just being hungry,” says David Jordan, Pantry Manager at Chicago Hope Food Pantry, “It's a lack of consistent and nutritious energy. It’s difficult to pull yourself out of bed in the morning if you literally do not have the energy to do so because you weren’t able to eat enough the day before.” It’s people like David and places like the Chicago Hope Food Pantry that hope to provide healthy food and produce to their community.

Located in Logan Square, the Chicago Hope Food Pantry is run by mother-son duo Maggie Jordan and David Jordan. They provide groceries and produce to anywhere from 20 to 80 people during serving sessions, with each person usually representing a family of 3-5 people. Like many food pantries in Chicago, it’s part of the larger community of food pantries in the Chicago area united under the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD). The GCFD connects over 700 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other programs in Chicago - and most of them are needed more than ever.

The numbers are staggering. Due to the impact of COVID-19 food insecurity has increased in Chicago by 51% in the last year2. However, the Greater Chicago Food Depository has risen to the challenge by forming new partnerships, increasing their volume, and developing innovative new grant programs focused on expanding food and nutrition access across communities. This has directly resulted in four new pantries opening through the city and dozens of facilities in vulnerable and marginalized communities receiving additional funding.

“We need a stronger more resilient food system — one that prioritizes justice, one that strives to dismantle racism and one that honors community wisdom,” said Nicole Robinson, vice president of community impact for GCFD3.

The GCFD is coming off a record year where they distributed over 93 million pounds of food throughout the city and they’re expecting a similar situation again in 2021. This extra effort means the GCFD, and pantries like Chicago Hope, need even more volunteers to help support their work throughout the entire process. We’ll go through that process below to show all the ways you can get involved.

1. Bulk Donations

It starts with bulk donations that are received by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. These donations usually come from federal government programs, but also from farmers, retail grocers, manufacturers, and distributors. They also collect from the hundreds of food drives that happen each year in the city.

🔗 If you’re in the food industry and interested in making a bulk food donation

🔗 Want to start a food drive?

2. Inspect and Repack

A vital step after receiving the donations is to inspect the food to ensure freshness and expiration, repack into family/individual servings, and then prepare for distribution. The GCFD goes through hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce, non-perishables, and other goods each day at their main warehouse and it requires an army of volunteers to keep up. All food needs to be carefully inspected before being sent out to various food banks, soup kitchens, shelters, and more.

🔗 Volunteer to Repack

3. Delivery

After the donations have been vetted and repacked it is sent and delivered to the hundreds of locations GCFD is partnered with using a fleet of climate controlled vans. Two-person teams help deliver fresh produce, canned goods, and more to a variety of food pantries, shelters, and programs. Vehicles are provided. Drivers must be at least 21 years old and willing to commit to regular volunteering. If you’re interested in driving fill out the volunteering contact form and say you want to drive in the message box!

🔗 Volunteering Contact Form

4. Individual Donations

Once the food leaves the GCFD warehouse it heads to individual food banks and pantries like Chicago Hope. Many of these food banks and pantries also take donations from individuals as well as the bulk donations they receive from GCFD. If you would like to donate food and other necessary supplies (sanitary items, hygiene items, etc) look for a food bank near you and contact them to see how to donate. At Activate:Chi we try to encourage people to get involved with their community, so we recommend working with food banks in your area before looking beyond!

🔗 Find a food bank near you

5. Stock, Organize, Serve, and Tear Down

Now that the food has reached the specific food banks and food pantries it needs to be reinspected, and then stocked and organized to be ready to serve. They also need a team of volunteers to help serve the food during open sessions and then tear down afterwards. If you’re interested in volunteering at your local food bank, use the link below to find your local food bank to ask how you can get involved!

🔗 Find a food bank near you

Food distributed by the greater Chicago Food Repository from 2016 through 2020. In 2020 they donated 93 million pounds, 18 million pounds more than in 2019.

David rightfully points out that food insecurity is a symptom of a larger issue in many cases. “Poverty is expensive,” says David, “For many people, they can’t afford to be near healthy food and as housing costs near public transportation increases, many have limited access to get healthy food as well.” He shares that he started at Chicago Hope not as a volunteer, but as a client. It was his own past experiences being food-insecure that drove him to help more. “These are people worried for their family, their jobs, their rent, and a host of other things. I want to at least free them from worrying about where their next meal is coming from. [I want] to provide them food with the respect and dignity they deserve as people.”

It’s difficult for many people to see, in what is such a widespread and deeply rooted issue of inequality, how their effort can make a difference. “It’s about advancing a cause with no expectation of return,” Tom Gorman, a volunteer at Chicago Hope, told me. Tom has volunteered at numerous soup kitchens, food pantries, and other programs throughout Chicago. Growing up in a rural area and having experience with working on dairy farms, he developed a profound respect for food. “It’s difficult in one eye to see people hungry and in the other eye see food being thrown away. I believe that we, as people, have a basic equality to strive towards. In our basic rights we should each be equal and food is one of those basic rights. We need to provide for each other.”

We should provide for our families, provide for our friends, and collectively help provide for our community. Food can trigger so many emotions in all of us: warmth, nostalgia, happiness, and comfort. By volunteering and donating to help combat food insecurity in Chicago we can build our communities and provide that same comfort and warmth to thousands of Chicagoans. Now that you know how and why to do it, the only thing left is for you to get involved.

Thank you to Maggie Jordan, David Jordan, and Chicago Hope Food Pantry for graciously providing their time for an interview. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for the next article or would like to write for Activate:Chi yourself please contact Sanjee Choudhuri at sanjeechoudhuri@activate-chi.org


  1. chicago.suntimes.com
  2. chicagosfoodbank.org
  3. wbez.org