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Finding food in Chicago: Neighborhoods step up after schools suspend distribution

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Parents at National Teachers Academy put together lunch bags for families on June 1, after Chicago Public Schools temporarily suspended food distribution.

Chicago Public Schools’ decision to suspend free meals for students and the swift blowback it has gotten on social media have highlighted the depth and rapid growth of student need, in the midst of a pandemic and deepening economic crisis.

Community groups have stepped up quickly on short notice to try and fill the void. From local restaurants in Uptown offering students free hot dogs to parents in Chinatown packing lunch bags, community-led food distribution efforts have materialized overnight in response to the district’s announcement. 

W.D. Floyd heads a non-profit called 360 Nation based in West Garfield Park. When he heard that schools suspended food distribution, Floyd spent Monday morning at Costco and a local grocery store, then put together food packets of fruit cups, sandwiches and bottles. He handed out packets to 30 families in the afternoon. 

“To us, even 24 hours without food access for families is too long,” Floyd said. Today shows “people could step in and provide for people what the state can’t provide, even though it should.” 

Speaking Monday, schools chief Janice Jackson said Chicago had served more than 12 million meals since school buildings closed March 17. Much of the distribution has been done in person at school sites. On Monday, the school district scheduled delivery trucks to make 3,000 stops and deliver 18,000 meals. Officials encouraged families seeking deliveries to call 773-553-KIDS. 

Jackson said she decided to suspend the meals-to-go program Sunday night to protect front-line school employees, after violence broke out across the city over the weekend.  

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something happened with a student or family member while they were going to get food,” schools chief Janice Jackson said in a Monday morning press conference.

Worried that families depending on school meals would go hungry, churches, parents and community groups jumped into action, making food boxes, packed lunches and breakfast snacks available.

On Monday, Christ Lutheran Church in Albany Park was distributing food, McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown was providing food boxes, and National Teachers Academy in the South Loop was offering bagged lunches, Chalkbeat Chicago found. A spreadsheet compiled by an anonymous user listed 50 locations offering food, and several groups that were willing to donate.  

Jordan Lanfair, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, began organizing with his church, St. Paul & the Redeemer Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, on Monday morning to set up an impromptu food distribution site, and has been flooded with offers of financial support. Now, he’s in the initial stages of coordinating delivery to families not able to come to Hyde Park. 

“I know kids are going hungry, and I know what that is like,” said Lanfair, who now works for the teacher training group Golden Apple. 

School district officials said they would reevaluate food distribution and hoped to resume it on Tuesday, as dozens of community groups began circulating a petition calling on Jackson to restart the food program immediately.

“I’m hoping with all of the resources that are being deployed, we will be in a different position tomorrow. But we have to guarantee the safety of our employees first and foremost,” Jackson said.

Lightfoot imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on Saturday amid protests against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. On Sunday evening, in response to widespread property destruction, Chicago suspended bus and train service and blocked off a portion of the city near downtown.

Convenience stores and supermarkets closed in some neighborhoods on Sunday afternoon. It was not clear Monday when they would reopen.

Chicago has operated one of the largest meal distribution programs of any large urban district, handing out millions of free meals at hundreds of campuses since measures to contain the coronavirus shut down school buildings March 17. 

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