When Chicago Public Schools suspended its meal distribution program on Sunday, May 31, it followed a weekend of citywide protests in response to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. CPS announced the news after 10 PM through its Twitter account, which mirrored the city’s confusing, haphazard response to the protests; that Saturday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a 9 PM curfew at 8:25 PM, after CTA suspended service to the Loop and the city raised most of downtown’s drawbridges. CPS’s tweet noted the meal-distribution suspension had been “based on the evolving nature of activity around the city.”
From the beginning of the pandemic through the end of May, CPS’s food distribution program provided more than 13 million meals. The last-minute meal suspension left thousands of students and their families in the lurch. Early in the morning on June 1, Trina Reynolds-Tyler tweeted, “If there is a school near you, organize FOOD for the children.” Reynolds-Tyler, a member of Black Youth Project 100, got to work on setting up a distribution site. Dominique James, a Young Chicago Authors teaching artist, quickly texted Reynolds-Tyler offering to help.
What began as a rapid-response initiative grew into the People’s Grab-N-Go, a weekly food distribution program headquartered at Burke Elementary School in Washington Park. Organizers have not only distributed groceries and toiletries to neighbors in need (and provided those in need of SNAP benefits and extensions with support), but also created a platform to spread awareness of food insecurity in its connection to broader systemic issues, including police brutality and historical disinvestment of Black and Brown communities.
After the first week of distributing food, Reynolds-Tyler and James formed a Grab-N-Go leadership team with Becoming A Man regional manager Jihad Kheperu and YCA teaching artist and rapper Matt Muse. “One of the things that I valued most about our site is that it is Black-led and it is led by people from that area,” James says. “I believe that it makes all the difference in how our distribution site is run—the effort feels so much more communal.”
As of its 11th week, the Grab-N-Go provided food and supplies to 3,700 families. Since it’s a volunteer-run program that relies on monetary and food donations, the members of the leadership team planned to run the program down by the end of summer—the Grab-N-Go’s last day for its original iteration was Monday, August 31. “I’m gonna miss talking to people about our mission,” Reynolds-Tyler says. “How we believe that the city of Chicago needs to defund the police, and they need to invest more in community care and community resources, because that is how we prevent violence.” In advance of the final day, a few volunteers spearheaded a new Grab-N-Go endeavor to provide care packages and books for Black and Brown youth on Chicago’s west and south sides; Reynolds-Tyler says they distributed at least 250 books and 230 bags with art supplies.
Before the final Grab-N-Go, I spoke with the four members of the leadership team about the experience. They’re all in their 20s, and had never overseen a food distribution effort before this, so I wanted to capture the endeavor in their voices—which is why I edited down these conversations into an oral history. The Grab-N-Go succeeded because of every volunteer who provided labor, money, and food, so this is by no means definitive, but it is a window into an empowering experience that helped a community in need.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: I woke up very early that morning, I tweeted, “Look at these grab and go meal sites—This is the time for us to do something. If you didn’t go to the protest”—and I was just fresh off of the protest—”if you weren’t able to come to the protest, if you’re afraid of protesting and you’re trying to find a way to plug in, find a school in your network, pull up with a grill, pull up with something, and feed folks. Because this morning, thousands of people who thought they were gonna get food are no longer gonna get food, and that’s a problem.”
Dominique James: I’m up early Monday morning, and I see Trina tweet that CPS has suspended its food distribution. I was like, “I have a Costco membership.” She was like, “This is something you should get involved in.”
Matt Muse: Dominique called me at 10 o’clock in the morning, like, “Hey, Imma go to Costco, Trina’s doing this food program.” I’m asleep, bro. I’m literally groggy—I was like, “Damn, I can stay in bed and go to sleep, but also she’s probably gonna need some help, so let me go to the store to help with these groceries.”
Dominique James: We looked up the map of the CPS meal sites, and we picked one in our neighborhood. We were like, “OK, this is on a major freeway but also King Drive, so let’s do this one.”
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: That’s when I called my friend Jihad, and I said, “Hey, we are gonna go to this school that is right by your home, do you want to come?”
Jihad Kheperu: I was looking for some direct service that was more hands-on during that time. A lot of things was going on during that time that I could have chosen to be a part of in the streets, protesting. For me, something that has a direct impact on community suffering, something that’s very close to my home—I’m from the area—that’s my interest in being involved.
Dominique James: I posted we were at Burke—my colleague at YCA was like, “Yo, that’s my mom’s school,” and she connected us with her.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: At first it almost started to rain, and I was feeling really sad because I thought, “Maybe we should go home.”
Dominique James: We were a little nervous because it was going to rain. Jihad brought a speaker, we were distributing food, and we put out the call on social media—people brought tons of stuff and we were able to distribute it.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: We got out there maybe around 12 o’clock, and we ended up giving food to 150 people. That is the lowest number of people that we’ve ever given food to.
Jihad Kheperu: It was very simple—people coming up for what they needed, no requirements, few conversations around it other than, “How can we be of service?”
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: At that time, we weren’t thinking, “This is gonna be something that we do for the long run.” We were thinking, “We can do this today. This is something we can do today, and this is something we can do tomorrow” based on the donations that we had received.
Dominique James: We had two tables and had stuff on the tables, we gave what we could. The next day, there was so much stuff, and we were just like, “Whoa.” It was very chaotic and we were also struggling to maintain social distancing while being able to give people what we needed.
Jihad Kheperu: The community response—just seeing us outside—was so robust, I think everybody really wanted to pitch in, so we got an influx of resources that first week.
Dominique James: Tuesday we noticed people were bringing feminine hygiene and baby care items—and on top of this, based on what we learned about day one we were like, “We’re gonna have snacks, we’re gonna have this stuff, we’re gonna have this stuff.” And then natural sections began to emerge within the site. We also are a very small site because we technically can’t go on the school’s property, we’re kind of just in their entry way, so a little bit of a tight area.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: The next day, on Tuesday, we served 657 families. These are families who are leaving with groceries—this is not like an individual sandwich, or a roll of toilet paper. People came up to us, got a bag of groceries, grabbed some diapers, baby formula, tampons, pads, whatever. It was a really powerful thing. At that point, we said, “Oh, we can’t stop.”
Dominique James: Tuesday we were like, “We are actually super-duper tired, and we need to structure this. This is clearly going to be something longer term, we don’t know to what extent. Let’s take a pause, structure this out a bit, and then come back next week.”
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: We had a debrief together, we were like, “What’s our mission? What are we doing? If we’re gonna do this, we need to say that we’re doing this.” We came up with a mission—it was just me, Jihad, Matt, and Dominique.
Matt Muse: I ended up at one of the meetings that they were having, just ’cause I was getting a ride home with Dom. I was like, “Are y’all OK with me saying what I think about what happened today and how today went?” And they were like, “Yeah.”
Jihad Kheperu: I wasn’t really too familiar with the other two members—Dominique and Matt—before this started.
Matt Muse: I met [Jihad] through this; he’s a phenomenal person and we’re friends now.
Jihad Kheperu: None of us really have much experience with food drives—resource allocation in that sense—but I think it also was pretty natural for us. We all have some experience with community organizing and community outreach, we all love food, we all love Black people, we all love the hood, so it kind of happened pretty naturally. Once we began to think what the needs were, what we had at our disposal, it wasn’t too complicated.
Matt Muse: Dominique was super, super integral in coming up with the Sunday and Monday thing—like, “OK, we’re gonna pack on Sundays and then we’re gonna distribute on Mondays.’ We always were gonna distribute on Mondays, but how are we gonna pack the bags? “OK, let’s get people up to YCA on Sunday.”
Jihad Kheperu: My first major act was probably overseeing our first south-side drop site, which is actually the building that my family owns, maybe two blocks from the location.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: At first we didn’t have a truck. We just had our cars and we just had people donating things to us. We would then get a U-Haul.
Matt Muse: We were renting U-Haul trucks every week for that first month to do the drive. I moved with U-Haul a couple times, and that shit can be a pain in the ass, just having to go back and forth to the U-Haul place.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: Matt and Dominique were handling that, and they were like, “Because of U-Haul’s policies, we think we need to rent out a truck for long-term.”
Matt Muse: We were able to actually get a truck that was specifically for the People’s Grab-N-Go. We’ve been renting it out since, I think, late June, and we have it till the end of August. That was a big game changer; getting the truck took away a whole lot of the physical hours and physical labor that we were doing in the beginning.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: Matt ended up managing the volunteers.
Matt Muse: The second day there was 30 volunteers there. It was dope, but it’s also like, not only do we not need 30 volunteers in general, but 30 volunteers is putting all of us at risk. I get that it’s an emergency and it’s a moment, but hey, if we take two seconds to think about scheduling people, we’ll be able to do all the work those 30 people did with the ten people we scheduled.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: As we were getting into our groove, we were like, “How do we make bags with intention and care?” We were receiving quite a bit of things, but the things we were receiving were not necessarily things that people were actually gonna eat. We didn’t want to give people bags of food that they weren’t going to use. So what we ended up doing was creating a donation list of things that we were willing to accept.
Dominique James: We ended up going to the grocery store and they’re like, “Y’all are buying a lot of stuff, what’s this? You can place a bulk order with us.” We’re like, “Really? OK.”
Matt Muse: We started connecting with the Mariano’s on King Drive. We basically made a list of all the stuff we’re gonna put in each bag, and they provide all of that on a weekly basis, and they’ve been doing that for about a month now. And once we got that, it was like, “OK, bet, this is a system now.” So now instead of having to hope that we get enough jelly every week, we know we make 200 bags, we can order 200 jars of jelly every single week.
Dominique James: Buying the groceries in advance, packing the bags in advance is the system we have now on Sundays. We’re at Young Chicago Authors—we go pick up the grocery order, take the grocery order off the truck, and then pack the 200 grocery bags, and at the same time we’re laying the collection of the items that we need to build out our hygiene table for that week.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: We make sure that every single bag that we gave out had cereal, rice and beans, peanut butter and jelly, a loaf of bread, potatoes, onions, and oranges—oh, [and] pasta and pasta sauce.
Matt Muse: Trina made an amazing Google survey; we sent it out to the people who showed up, and now I have their contact info. It specifically asks questions like, “What days are you available? What times are you available? Will you be able to drive, will you not be able to drive? Do you have any special requirements for when you come to volunteer? Do you need to sit for a certain amount of time—is standing too long a bad thing?” I’m able to go into that database that she created, look at all these answers, and say, “OK, these are the three people or eight people I’m gonna schedule on Sunday, and I’m gonna make sure I’ll tell them how long they’re gonna be there based on the answers to the questions that Trina made.”
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: The way the Grab-N-Go is set up, on one side you have bags of groceries—and, like, milk and eggs that are in coolers—and Matt passes the bags to the people and have conversations. On the other side, there’s a toiletries line—so those are two separate lines. Outside of those tables with the canopy over it, across from us, are these people who are basically waiting to take you to your car. There’s one person who’s a counter, who has masks—so the counter counts you and they give you a mask if you don’t have one. And then there are at least three people who will ask you, “Do you need help getting to your car? Is there any way I can help you? Do you need any support?”
Matt Muse: Instead of having a bunch of people standing around waiting to be told what to do, we have specific roles that every volunteer plays, and that helped us reduce the amount of people who were showing up significantly.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: Dominique, her role has really been engaging with other resources to get us more things to the site. For example, she has been the outreach person for other mutual aid efforts, so through her we have lots of relationships with other mutual aid efforts happening in Chicago, one that happened in Roseland, one that does a delivery service to people.
Dominique James: With YCA, we have these education partnerships where a teaching artist goes into the school for 13 weeks and works in direct collaboration with an in-school teacher to provide in-school programming and after-school programming. Miss Rolle is a teacher at Butler College Prep at 103rd and Cottage—Matt was Miss Rolle’s teaching partner. She hit me up, like, “Hey, my school also stopped their meal distribution, I want to help out.” I always admired Miss Rolle as an educator, and the way she cares for her students holistically. She ran a site for four weeks in June on 103rd and Cottage—there’s a vacant lot. And she also utilized her network to volunteer and bring stuff to her site. Helping her think through different partnerships and different issues she was facing, that’s one of my favorite things.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: Jihad does social media stuff—he left Chicago for a while, and when he did, he was like, “I’m gonna do the media.”
Jihad Kheperu: I try to get on there daily, at least multiple times a week, to respond to everybody that’s reaching out as soon as they reach out to us—pre-Grab-N-Go to give everybody a heads-up that it’s coming back around, here are our needs. We use it to thank people who are involved, and uplift what’s going on. To document what’s happening and create this narrative for the public that this is a moment of empowerment that is community-led, using social media—using Instagram—as a means of having that conversation. And showing what’s going on behind the scenes.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: The community—they show up. We have a DJ, DJ Cash Era. They come, and they be dancing, and they have a good time with us. They give us so much love, and we give them so much love back.
Dominique James: We get to know our community members in the space of love and joy, and I think that is what has sustained us.
Jihad Kheperu: I definitely try to center joy with our social media. Definitely don’t want this to be some page that feeds on Black trauma and community trauma. We want this to be a space where folks can see what it really looks like; that’s us laughing with folks all day long, us out there with our DJ playing music and dancing with the community on Mondays.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: We know regulars by name now. In the beginning of the Grab-N-Go, people are lining up. The people who are on foot who come a little bit early, they’re usually like, “Do y’all need any help? How can we help you?”
Jihad Kheperu: Even during pandemic times, there was something warm and welcoming about the social aspect of the Grab-N-Go as well. We’re not supposed to be going to parties and functions that we normally do for our social engagement, this being a way to meet new people to engage with the community in a way that is safe.
Matt Muse: I have really just enjoyed being out there; being outside, around people from different walks of life, hearing all these different stories, and communicating with those people for the three to five minutes that they’re picking up their groceries and stuff.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: There’s an older woman who’s always coming to flirt with Matt. Every single time.
Matt Muse: Being out there and being on the ground—and just physically being in touch with these people has been a huge eye-opener for me, as far as like, “Yo, this really is just a resource problem.” Chicago has a huge resource problem.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: I do a lot of the loose ends stuff. I do a lot of the stuff on the site, like site setup. I’m making some calls, trying to get COVID-19 testing to our site, all the little things that we want in order to build out the Grab-N-Go.
Jihad Kheperu: After June, the system was pretty solid.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: By July, it was like, “We have a truck now, there is a person from the community who comes and helps us set up every Monday.”
Matt Muse: We ain’t got that much shit going on ’cause of COVID anyway. Maybe if this is any other time, I would’ve been distracted by a lot of things that would’ve made this take longer. But I think the four of us are all really, really focused on this right now and we all believe in it, so when we sit down and talk through things it’s not that hard to come up with a solution to make it work.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: This is not necessarily something that people will happily sign up for; this is literally labor. What we’re doing is we’re working, and it’s hard. We have to show up every week, even when we don’t have capacity—and we try to communicate, like, “Oh I actually don’t feel like it,” or if I’m having an off day or something like that.
Dominique James: It can be stressful work—I myself am very emotional, and we give each other the space to be ourselves and then also check in.
Jihad Kheperu: We all care about each other outside of this work, so we do a really good job of just checking in with each other and making sure we’re not getting too burnt out, because it is a lot going on this summer for everybody.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: To be able to contribute our Sundays and our Saturdays, we all are employed but our jobs offer us a bit of flexibility so that gives us the ability to even do these things.
Matt Muse: Sunday and Monday are both a good seven hours each, so I would say 14 hours right there, if you just talk about the actual physical labor of the food drive. But with planning and coordination, it’s probably a good 20 hours a week.
Dominique James: With zero exaggeration, this is like a full-time job.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler: August 31 seemed like a responsible time to end. We have been here, we have been committed to these people, this site, and this community for three months. I personally don’t know if we will be able to sustain longer than three months because of work schedules, and also we’re running out of money—we’re not gonna have any money at the end of this.
Jihad Kheperu: Monday was my favorite day of the week for a while; I’ll definitely be looking a bit forlorn as well as just missing the team.
Matt Muse: My biggest takeaway so far is just, like, “Yo, I’ve never been in touch with the people that I have been this summer, never in my life—the people of Chicago, of the south side, where I’m from.” It’s beautiful to be in this position. v