In just the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, food and clothing pantry Care for Real registered more new clients than it did in all of 2019 — and those numbers are not declining, said Nancy Meyerson, board chair of the nonprofit. Almost six months in, she said lines to get food are still up to an hour long. And with dozens of neighborhood food pantries closing, Care for Real has had to pick up the slack, expanding beyond its home base in Edgewater to serve Rogers Park residents through pop-up locations.
“The need right now has grown so quickly,” Meyerson said.
According to a Feeding America projection, up to 54 million people may be food insecure this year due to the effects of COVID-19, with one in seven Cook County residents experiencing food insecurity at least once in 2020.
“We have to figure out how we can distribute the most food to the most people in the quickest manner,” Meyerson said. “We need to be able to see more people, more quickly, with complete food safety.”
To help meet these specific needs, Whole Foods Market is providing Care for Real a refrigerated van through its new program, Nourishing our Neighborhoods. The initiative aims to aid food rescue and support distribution of perishable and nonperishable food items, and will provide refrigerated vans to community organizations in 17 metro areas in the U.S. and Canada.
The problems of food insecurity aren’t so much about lack of donations, but the difficulty of getting those donations the final mile to the people who need them, said Nancy LaBreacht, in-store and local marketing specialist for Whole Foods. She said Nourishing our Neighborhoods was created to kick off Hunger Action Month, and also to help meet need created by COVID-19.
The new van will help Care for Real obtain and distribute 20,000 pounds of food per week, LaBreacht said.
“What we found, more than anything, is that food insecurity was kind of the driving force behind some of the problems that have been created by the pandemic,” LaBreacht said. “We really looked at one of the best ways that we could help get food to where it needed to go, and this really made a lot of sense, to be able to offer these vans to some of our community partners.”
Meyerson said this help “can’t come too soon.” One of their existing vans is 17 years old and on its last legs after being damaged in a fire and then restored. She said purchasing a new van like the one donated by Whole Foods would be cost prohibitive for the nonprofit, which operates on a small budget. “It’s a very significant amount of money that would have been about almost 10% of our cash income,” Meyerson said. “So, we couldn’t have done it without them.”
The van will both increase the amount of food Care for Real will be able to distribute and the amount of food volunteers are able to pick up from locations like Whole Foods. “Since we will have a very stable, safe, workhorse of a van, we will be able to go farther out to get our food, so we aren’t going to be limited to picking up in our immediate area,” she said.
Because the van will be refrigerated, it will be much easier to transport goods that wouldn’t fare well in hot trucks, Meyerson said, like fresh produce, meats and even flowers. “We’re able to give people fresh oranges rather than canned oranges in syrup. This is important from a nutrition standpoint, but also from a human dignity standpoint,” she said, adding that those who can’t afford groceries appreciate baked goods and other “treats” for the sense of normalcy they bring.
Meyerson said the new van may also take the form of a “mobile pop-up,” which would deliver food out to central locations with 10 or 20 clients, like subsidized senior housing. This process would get food out faster and keep people more socially distant, she said.
Last year, Care for Real donated enough ingredients to make 1.25 million meals, Meyerson said. This year, they are on track to donate enough for 1.5 to 1.75 million meals, she said adding, “We really feel that we have a mission to serve as many people as possible.”
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