From well-manicured suburban lawns to blighted neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, hunger knows no bounds, especially, it’s become clear, during a pandemic.
An estimated 54 million Americans – 18 million of them children – could go hungry this year as a result of the economic fallout from COVID-19, a recent analysis from national food bank network Feeding America estimated, an increase of over 17 million from 2018.
In Northern Illinois, 400,000 residents in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs were experiencing food insecurity before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Now, Feeding America estimates suggest that number has increased by another 200,000.
Enter TopBox Foods, a non-profit founded in 2012 by Kenilworth residents Chris and Sheila Kennedy, which works to end hunger by increasing access to healthy, affordable food in areas of northern Illinois, Louisiana and Atlanta considered to be food deserts.
The Kennedys had spent decades working actively for social justice, a family passion on both sides. Sheila Kennedy’s mother, Sheila Reynolds Berner, worked as a social worker for more than 25 years at the Howard Area Community Center in Chicago. Chris Kennedy, the eighth of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, served for many years on the board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and taught social justice courses at area universities, among a laundry list of other efforts.
After news in 2011 that the founders of Angel Food Ministries – a company distributing groceries to half a million needy families across the nation – were facing federal charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy in 2011, the Kennedys made a quick decision to step in and fill the void, with the nonprofit providing boxes of fresh produce, fish and meat sold for up to 40 percent less than grocery store prices.
For $15, customers can get a 12 to 15 pound box of produce that often includes berries, apples, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes and greens. Boxes of grains and proteins – chicken, steak and fish range from $9 to $36, depending on the size. Customers pay via cash, credit or Link card.
Before the pandemic, TopBox partnered with area churches, community organizations, housing facilities, healthcare providers and schools, which served as pickup sites.
But this spring, in an effort to increase contactless grocery purchases, TopBox switched largely to home deliveries, with masked volunteers dropping off customers’ boxes at their front doors and watching from the curb to make sure groceries are received.
Some churches in impoverished communities, meanwhile, have continued to serve as pickup sites, including Apostolic Faith Church in Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot stopped to visit with customers and volunteers in late May.
Chicago Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr. a TopBox volunteer – noted that in recent days, following riots and protests over police brutality in his 21st ward, the area “was a complete food desert.”
“It made a difference for TopBox to be able to deliver to people in my communities, so they wouldn’t have to travel to surrounding suburbs,” he said.
A recent trip to the warehouse in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood saw volunteers moving with urgency, with cars being packed with produce, meat and grain boxes on the loading dock, then heading off to make deliveries across the city and suburbs.
Data kept by TopBox shows the number of customers served per week increased from 36 customers the week of March 16 – the first full week Illinois’ lockdown went into effect – to 1,996 the week of June 8. Over the course of the pandemic, TopBox has delivered enough food to provide area residents roughly a quarter of a million meals.
“We used to deliver once a month and now we are delivering six days a week,” Sheila Kennedy said, noting that the need is great for more volunteers, as well as donations.
State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Chicago Democrat representing the city’s South Side, noted that TopBox has filled a void for many residents of her district, particularly seniors, who have limited mobility and access to healthy food.
“We live in a food desert as well as a health desert here,” Collins said, adding that in recent weeks stores relied upon by residents – Aldi, Walmart, Walgreens, as well as corner grocery stores, have been closed and boarded up due to riots and looting. She calls the situation “completely untenable at this point,” one that has “a very detrimental effect on a community that’s already suffering from (high rates of) diabetes, asthma and heart disease.”
“Things may never fully get back to ‘normal,’ Brookins said, “so to have the ability to have people deliver food to your door is tremendous. I’m really thankful to Chris and Sheila and to TopBox to be giving people that assurance during this time.”
For more information about volunteering or donating, visit www.topboxfoods.com.