Urban Growers Collective, a Black- and women-run nonprofit, is one of the groups working to create food equity in the city. Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

“I think policy is everything,” said Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, a professor at University of Illinois Chicago who researches environmental and social impacts on diet-related diseases. Odoms-Young is one of two dozen public health experts, food justice advocates, and city officials who gathered at the beginning of the year to assess how Chicago’s government can serve as a guiding hand in building a more equitable food system. “We tend to think of this as a household issue,” she said. “It’s a community-level issue and a society-level issue. It’s business, it’s infrastructure. In most things we understand that. For instance, if you drive your car and a bridge is not safe, we think a policy needs to change to make that bridge safe. We expect societal structures are going to make the bridge safe to drive on.”

The lack of food infrastructure in Chicago’s Black communities is a dense knot of problems tied up in poverty, land ownership, job opportunities, and incarceration, tightened over a century of disinvestment and discriminatory policies. It’s a knot that nonprofits, activists, and public officials have been struggling to untangle for years—building urban farms and community gardens with job training programs, introducing small produce sections into corner stores, providing matching coupons for produce purchased with EBT, even opening a Whole Foods store in Englewood.

But, as Erika Allen, cofounder and CEO of Urban Growers Collective, pointed out, dropping a grocery store in a community doesn’t solve systemic racism. And emergency food programming, public health initiatives, private food enterprises, and city-level policymaking have largely taken place in separate orbits—leaders at food justice nonprofits have enough to do advancing their own programs and keeping their organizations afloat. City plans for improving food security, however well-intentioned and crafted with input from community members, fizzled with each new administration. “The urban ag people were in their sandbox, we were in our sandbox,” said Nicole Robinson, chief partnership and programs officer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies goods for pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters across Cook County. “It feels like you’re starting over when administrations change. Funding was a challenge. And food access wasn’t important in the larger landscape.”

Then the pandemic struck, blowing the cracks in the system wide open. Movements for racial justice following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd heightened public awareness of inequity in their own backyards. The response in Chicago was swift and citywide. Mutual aid networks of volunteers moving food from areas of surplus to those of need blossomed; the Love Fridge was born and refrigerators with free food popped up along sidewalks; various food-focused organizations teamed up to do high-volume grocery and meal distribution. Urban Growers Collective redirected their energy from agriculture to emergency distribution, partnering with Black-owned catering company ChiFresh Kitchen, women-owned catering cooperative Las Visionarias, and the Chicago Teachers Union to provide prepared meals for families in need. “We were able to use emergency food grant money to support their businesses,” said Allen. “This is the kind of farm-to-table our community needs. It recirculates dollars. People got to know each other and collaborate. And we were able to deploy some crazy amount of meals.”

The collective efforts of decentralized volunteer groups and larger institutions like the Food Depository had an impact. “You saw news reports of long lines of cars in Texas for food distribution. You didn’t see that here. There’s a reason for that,” Robinson said. Cook County has 450 food pantries, only 35 percent of which have a paid staff person. Robinson said many of the rest are volunteer led. “Some are connected to faith-based organizations, some are connected to grassroots organizations, some are anti-hunger organizations. There are 4,000 volunteers working across the pantries. Many of them are older adults. These are the heroes and the people who got us through the pandemic. That’s what I think about when I think of the strength of the food system.”

New community partnerships, federal and local government appetite to invest in infrastructure, invigorated social justice movements, and the first city administration to publicly acknowledge the harms of longstanding discrimination and commit to racial equity across policymaking converged, setting the table for cross-sector conversations about food insecurity: A larger table with a place for those affected by inequity, where solutions that take into account the economic, social, environmental, and political forces that shape the food system could take place.

As the Office of Emergency Management, which worked closely with the Food Depository from the start of the pandemic, began winding down in early 2021, Robinson saw the opportunity to carry the energy behind emergency response to long-term structural change. “I went to a trifecta of the mayor’s office, the Department of Public Health, and Family and Support Services and said, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta figure this out. There’s a long road ahead of us. How do we leverage this moment when people care?’ People have an understanding about inequity they haven’t had before. There’s a political will we haven’t had before.”

Eliminating barriers to urban farming and increasing purchasing from BIPOC growers and producers for institutions are among the priorities of the food equity council.Credit: courtesy urban growers collective

Juan Sebastian Arias was just a few months into his position as a deputy director of policy in the mayor’s office when Robinson approached the city about creating a long-term food security plan. Though relatively green to Chicago politics, Arias was up for the challenge and, along with Robinson and the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, convened a working group to evaluate past food security plans from the city alongside existing roadmaps and strategies from the Food Depository, West Side United, and the Alliance for Health Equity. The group was to make recommendations on improving access and equity in the south and west side communities that suffer from disinvestment. And, equally important, propose a durable governing framework to ensure the plan would be carried out by current and future administrations.

Allen, who is also a cofounder of the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, noted that it’s “a constellation of things that come together to create the problems. You need the same constellation of things to come together to break those problems. And it has to be done from the community. If some entity says, ‘Give me all the money because I have the capacity,’ how does the community build their own capacity?”

The advisory group assembled in early 2021 was the first concerted effort by the city to take the entire Chicago food system constellation in view. The group included leaders in community organizations like Austin Coming Together and Enlace Chicago; urban agriculture organizations Grow Greater Englewood and Urban Growers Collective; public health organizations Alliance for Health Equity and the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children; public health experts with Alliance for Health Equity and Odoms-Young from UIC; lender/developer Illinois Fresh Food Fund; and a slate of city agencies: Family and Support Services, Planning and Development, Public Health, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and Chicago Public Schools. Over a handful of meetings, the group agreed on food system “pillars” to fortify—production, retail, processing and procurement, entrepreneurship, nutrition benefit programs, and emergency systems—and set priorities for the coming year to shore up emergency services and build long-term, equitable food system infrastructure.

One priority area builds on a recent positive step in food policy. In 2017, after three years of work with the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, the city adopted a Good Food Purchasing Program, which set environmental, nutritional, and labor standards for the massive quantities of food purchased by CPS and other institutional buyers. Before then, food supplier contracts for schools and other city agencies went to the lowest bidder that met whatever baseline nutrition criteria are required to receive federal funds. The purchasing policy improved the quality of food served to kids in public schools and has the potential to direct millions of dollars to local farms and food businesses. In 2018, with support from then-commissioner Chuy García, Cook County followed suit, adopting the policy and adding criteria to direct state purchasing to businesses in low-income communities that hire people with prior arrests or prison records. The county policy also includes a provision for county-owned land to go to BIPOC-owned farms and social enterprises.

Rodger Cooley, executive director of the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, said one goal for an emerging council charged with governing food access will be to create real, tangible opportunities for institutional purchasing contracts to be awarded to local BIPOC vendors, suppliers, and farms. “There’s been a lot of work setting the tone and measuring and understanding current purchasing,” he said, “but we’re looking to have some real success. Which means digging into: Are these contracts scaled right? Are they advertised sufficiently? Making sure there’s capacity building for these vendors to become M/WBE [certified Minority and Women-Owned Businesses] to take advantage of these opportunities. Seeing how this meets food access goals as well as entrepreneurship goals. As well as moving vacant lot properties off the city roles. How does it connect to workforce development and job opportunities for previously incarcerated folks? And intertwining all these things in a holistic way.”

However, BIPOC farmers, grocers, caterers, and food vendors can’t build facilities, train and hire workers, and secure city and institutional contracts without capital to start or scale up their operations. And funding is near impossible to come by without existing wealth or collateral. “You can get loans, but the interest will be high,” Allen said. “It means those entities have to work twice as hard to service loans. That’s how this stuff is rolled. When you’re playing from behind consistently it’s hard to catch up with your competitors.”

Allen speaks from experience. The former director of Growing Power’s Chicago branch—and daughter of legendary retired NBA player and MacArthur “genius” award-winning Growing Power founder Will Allen—has spent the past ten years raising start-up capital for the Green Era renewable energy campus, an energy facility powered by an anaerobic digester in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. The facility will train and employ formerly incarcerated people and, when operational, produce 40 cubic yards of compost per day. Allen says that’s enough compost to convert one vacant lot into a vegetable garden each day. It’s a project that transforms a brownfield site into a generator of clean energy and carbon offsets, directs organic materials from landfills to clean, nutrient-dense growing medium, provides 100 good, local jobs to a vulnerable population, and is led by arguably the biggest name in urban agriculture in the state. Yet raising the $31 million of capital funding to build the digester has taken Allen and her partners a decade.

Immediately after quoting the start-up costs of the Green Era campus, Allen jumped (as anyone advocating for infrastructure investment learns to do) to the long-term returns in dollars and lives. “If you measure impacts around public safety, property values around food systems—if that entity keeps two neighborhood teens out of prison that’s about $350,000 of taxpayer money,” she said. “It’s a lot cheaper to give people a good job in their neighborhood.”

Adding that value to the economy requires investment up front, and up-front backing for minority-owned enterprises on the south and west sides is, to put it mildly, sparse. In June of 2020, a report commissioned by nonprofit investing fund Benefit Chicago found white entrepreneurs attract 17 times more equity capital than their Black and Latinx counterparts nationwide, and 80 percent of minority entrepreneurs in Chicago can’t secure the capital required for their projects. Arias said part of the emerging city plan is to create a good food fund, modeled after programs like the Michigan Good Food Fund, in which government collaborates with private capital to provide low-cost loans to start up and expand BIPOC-owned food businesses.

Closing the funding gap between white and minority food entrepreneurs will take what Allen and Cooley respectively consider reparational and heroic efforts by government, philanthropy, and private lenders to back enterprises by people who, due to histories of redlining and racist practices, have little to no property, savings, or other collateral assets. Cooley believes a commitment from the city could be a catalyst for other investors, newly motivated by racial justice movements, to join in. “The city saying, ‘We’re in favor of this and we’re at the table,’ opens the door for others to participate. Lending their approval to it makes a big difference. The city can help facilitate and convene the space, but they don’t have to run it long term.”

“There are 4,000 volunteers working across the pantries. Many of them are older adults. These are the heroes and the people who got us through the pandemic. That’s what I think about when I think of the strength of the food system.”Credit: courtesy urban growers collective

A messier snarl the food equity governance council hopes to comb out is the morass of city departments and shifting requirements applicants must slog through to start an urban farm or community garden. Departments managing land access, water access, zoning, and remediation all play a hand. “The way things are set up now,” Allen said, “you need money and power to even navigate your way through.” She described the Kafkaesque nightmare of trying to establish a small garden on the south side for people with chronic physical illnesses to socialize, learn to grow food, and meet with their caregivers. Though backed by the mayor’s office, the project ran into a wall with the city securing access to an empty lot, and then stalled in inconsistent requirements about how to set up the space. “It’s like you’re almost being taunted,” Allen said through welling tears of anger and frustration. “The way folks in departments behaved toward community members. The anger and pain is unacceptable.”

Bureaucratic roadblocks that delay or halt projects led by a long-time, prominent farmer and advocate are all but unnavigable for newcomers without City Hall connections who are inexperienced at jumping through administrative hoops. Cooley said the mess of hurdles put up by city departments to new farms and gardens comes from an entrenched culture that doesn’t understand the value of gardens and obsesses over potential litigation. “One of the things that needs to happen is a cultural shift to say, ‘This is an appropriate and priority use for land if the community wants it, and we need to direct our resources to make sure that happens,'” he said, “rather than reserving land for a massive housing development sometime in the future, or retail corridors or industry exclusively. A lot of departments have taken on this attitude of protecting the perceived liability of the city as almost a corporate entity, rather than the city of and for the people who live here. It’s a bit of an antagonistic attitude. It creates a lot of burden on community partners who don’t have the lawyers, the money, the time to navigate those really complex processes.”

“It aligns with how institutional racism operates,” Allen said. “With non-clarity. You have to know someone.”

One of the priority areas for the Food Equity Governing Council will be removing barriers to urban farming. But Arias said he considered a lack of departmental cohesion to be the biggest hurdle for the city’s emerging food equity plan. “The current approach the city has—at large and in its approach to food—is so decentralized. Every department touches the overall food system. The need is for coordination and alignment around a common goal. And wanting to keep the values of equity and justice core to this work is also a growing muscle.”

Other priorities from the advisory group reveal areas where policy alone isn’t enough—notably, to “market and maximize nutrition programs and benefits.” Last year, at the height of the pandemic, with record unemployment and emergency food distributors working at full capacity, Illinois lost $80 million of federal SNAP funding due to a shortfall of eligible people enrolling for benefits. Robinson said the council would look at how to simplify and facilitate the SNAP application process.

And then there’s the social stigma of using the safety nets designed to keep citizens on stable ground. Everyone’s tax dollars contribute to nutrition programs that are available to anyone in a time of need—like a global pandemic—yet the word “entitlement” is almost universally uttered with disdain. Odoms-Young mentioned an older friend who is eligible for SNAP but reluctant to enroll. “It goes along with the stigma of ‘that family needs food assistance.’ No! Our city needs food assistance, our state needs food assistance. That’s money that could be spent at retailers in our state. They call SNAP the great multiplier because the money goes into businesses. If we need it, we can get it. Most of us think we’ll never need it.” Advocates are working at a grassroots level to get friends and neighbors involved in encouraging and helping eligible people sign up for SNAP benefits.

These priorities—eliminating zoning barriers to food pantries, making the most of nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC, providing access to capital for BIPOC food businesses, eliminating barriers to urban farming, and increasing purchasing from BIPOC growers and producers for institutional contracts—will take years of coordinated effort between numerous city agencies, partner organizations, and community advocates to come to fruition. To keep this big-picture, foundational work from winding up on the shelf when the city administration turns over, Arias and advisory group members are investigating how to make the food policy governing council a permanent fixture before the next mayoral election. The mayor’s office created a staff position to steward the food policy work and coordinate the council, but a governing body to set policy, monitor and evaluate outcomes, and adjust accordingly must be codified for the long-term, cross-agency work to continue.

Everyone I spoke with was optimistic—if cautiously—about the process thus far and the future of a food equity governing council, coordinated at the city level. Cooley said the city had not made this level of commitment on paper and invested this much time and energy in equitable food policy in his 20 years of food advocacy. Robinson said that the food system is at the highest level of collaboration she’s seen. “I think this is unprecedented,” she said. “It’s a bold experiment and I’m very optimistic.”   v