By Deborah Alexander, LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program
Joyce Brown is no stranger to people in need. As the project coordinator for the Englewood Food Network, she’s been organizing food pantries and serving up meals to hungry clients for a long time.
But during the past year, she’s seen a pronounced difference in the people who patronize the pantry run by Beautiful Zion Church, 1406 W. 64th St., where she volunteers at one of 32 food pantries in the Englewood network.
The Englewood Food Network gives away on average 20,000 bags of food to 10,000 clients each month, with more seniors and single mothers seeking assistance, according to Joyce Brown, project coordinator.
“There has always been seniors coming to get food,” Brown said. “But now there are more seniors and more families – especially single mothers with children. Everybody is in need.”
In this economy when people run out of food stamps, they’re turning to the food pantries to help them with meals, said Doris Jones, NCP director for Teamwork Englewood, which assists 15 food pantries through its partnership with the Englewood Food Network.
“We’re helping with the food needs and want to make sure people have a variety of produce and money to keep going,” she said.
Clients of the network food pantries receive a bag of groceries containing canned goods, cereal, bread, meat and – if available – fresh produce. The bags contain enough food for a family of four for two to three days. But the network is spending more to stock the pantries because of increased demand.
Teamwork Englewood and New Faith Baptist Church in south suburban Matteson are helping support the food pantries. Last year, New Faith Baptist donated $12,000 for the purchase of food for Englewood residents. And 40 trained volunteers from the Matteson church are on hand to help with cooking and bookkeeping, and to provide workshops to the food pantries.
Another goal of the Teamwork Englewood/New Faith Baptist Church partnership, said Jones, is working with the NCP Health, Food & Fitness Task Force to make sure a variety of healthy produce is available. Fresh produce trucks go to the food pantries on different days and times.
Teamwork Englewood also arranged for the pantries to purchase fresh produce and other goods from the Englewood Farmers’ Market during the season.
This task force is part of Teamwork Englewood’s Quality-of-Life plan to promote healthy lifestyles that include physical fitness, good nutrition and better use of health care resources.
Englewood, said Jones, is a food desert, noting that the only national grocery chains in the neighborhood are one Food 4 Less, at 72nd Street and Ashland Avenue; and two Aldi’s, at 63rd and Halsted streets and at 79th Street and Ashland Avenue.
Because of the lack of nutritious food in the black community, Jones said, many residents are plagued with obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
“Food is an issue,” she said. “We look at having well-balanced and nutritious meals. Adults need to know how to prepare soul food in a healthy way. Once you get a community eating healthy and exercising, the residents start to participate in other civic activities.”
Offering healthier food choices to the Englewood community is the key to bringing the neighborhood the best quality of life it can have, Jones said. A healthy cooking class at Beautiful Zion Church, started by volunteers from the New Faith Baptist Church in July, is providing another means of providing healthier food choices and education.
NCP lead agency Teamwork Englewood has partnered with local churches to bring about healthy eating and healthy cooking.
Chef consultant Kocoa Scott-Winbush, taught the classes this past summer to food pantry volunteers and neighborhood residents. In the classes, Scott-Winbush emphasized incorporating fresh vegetables into meals.
Sandra Wilcoxon remembers the first time the New Mt. Calvary Baptist Church food pantry, a network member, distributed fresh blueberries. “People refused to take the blueberries,” said Wilcoxon, a volunteer at the church’s food pantry, at 1859 W. Marquette Road. “They didn’t want to waste them. They didn’t know what to do with them.”
But through the healthy cooking classes, pantry volunteers came up with a solution the next time blueberries were available – blueberry pancakes. They were a huge hit.
The cooking classes have helped open up clients to food they would not ordinarily purchase, Wilcoxon said, adding that now, when clients line up for assistance, they often share recipes for items in the food bags.
The classes, added Brown, the food network coordinator, help participants “see there are other things to do with that same food. It gives them creative ideas to eat healthy.”
Linda Saunders, a Teamwork Englewood volunteer, has received assistance from a network food pantry and attended the cooking classes. She enjoyed the classes and the way Scott-Winbush expanded her palate.
“This class helped me with various ways to prepare food with healthy benefits,” she said. “They have turned out wonderful.”
Saunders, for example, had never prepared eggplant. But her 13-year-old son was so taken with a recipe that she learned in class that he later attended a cooking class with her.
“You learn not only the methods about how to prepare a dish, but also get cultural information and experience as well,” she said.
Dennis Ware, president and executive director of the Englewood Food Network, said that people in the Englewood community are among the poorest of the poor. They sometimes have to choose whether to spend their money on medication, housing or food.
“The Englewood Food Network strives to make sure they don’t have to make those choices,” Ware said.