Hungry in the Windy City

2 Feb
Beautiful and cold...

Beautiful and cold…

Chicago has to be one of the most vibrant and impressive cities in America. Lots of amazing buildings and culture and great restaurants…

Oh yeah, great restaurants, that won’t be of much relevance to a food stamp tourist like myself. I was in the city for three days for meetings of the National Advisory Council of Feeding America (the nationwide network of 202 food banks) which meets five times a year to help make a success of our food security efforts both on a local level (of getting as much food and support as possible in our direction) and on a national level (sourcing food, training and advocating to protect food stamps, federal commodities and the like). Also I wanted to check out the food stamp situation in a big city.

Leaders in the field of nutrition - and what have they got? A plate full of candy.

Leaders in the field of nutrition – and what have they got? A plate full of candy.

We had great discussions, working on issues like the contract that binds food banks together, issues of diversity, food sourcing and all manner of complex issues. Still, everyone had a delicious mexican lunch to keep their brain working…

A Fiesta like this calls for a panoramic shot.

A Fiesta like this calls for a panoramic shot.

That’s right, everyone except me. Despite the suggestions of some readers of this blog, I didn’t take advantage of all the free food that was offered to me, so as to make the Food Security Challenge more realistic. I had one free cooked dinner on Monday, because I had been flying and traveling all day and had virtually nothing to eat and was about to collapse. I got to Chicago late and couldn’t buy any food. I also took one free sandwich on one of the other days. Otherwise I existed on soup and sandwiches, like below:

Note the 'we accept EBT' sticker at 7-11

Note the ‘we accept EBT’ sticker at 7-11

Still, even the cheapest sandwich I could find, for $3.69 still blew my budget of figuring $2 per meal per day. I made it because I skipped breakfast. But being without the food I had amassed at home was a huge problem. I couldn’t buy a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to bring back on the plane, and so waste. So I had to sandwich it.

That is until my last day, when I visited the Marillac Center Food Pantry on Chicago’s West Side. I was interested in seeing how the level of services would compare from SB to Chicago.

Marillac Center on W Jackson

Marillac Center on W Jackson

The Marillac Center has been around for a hundred years providing services and a place to meet for the local community. The Food Pantry serves about 1200 families per month representing over 4100 individuals. It’s open 3 days per week for a couple of hours. Clients can only come once a month.

Whitney, the Program Director.

Whitney, the Program Director.

The good thing is that it has a waiting area where people can congregate until it is their turn to visit the pantry. In this area they will have blood pressure screenings and cooking demonstrations (though nothing was happening when I visited).The waiting area is great, because in Chicago in January, it SNOWS and everyone would freeze to death while they were waiting. Or maybe just wimpy west coasters like me would freeze. Anyway I was glad not to find out.


Take a number from Robert, a long-term volunteer

They let about 6 shoppers into the pantry area at one time.

The pantry didn't look this dingy, just bad photography from your humble reporter

The pantry didn’t look this dingy, just bad photography from your humble reporter

And there are volunteers to help with your shopping which is what is called client choice, which means that you can choose what you want from a selection of items.

Lauren - volunteer. Likes it because of the 'characters' she meets in her work.

Lauren – volunteer. Likes it because of the ‘characters’ she meets in her work.

The amount you can receive is also based on family size. The food is provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository and includes pasta, beans, meat, vegetables, canned goods, bread and some dairy. As a single person I would be able to get enough food for maybe 4-5 days. My trouble was that in a strange town with no cooking facilities I wouldn’t be able to eat too much. (As in SB, I didn’t actually take the food, but bought an equivalent). So I was able to get some soup, which I heated up in my hotel room.

I would say that the level of services is broadly similar in Chicago – less fresh produce obviously, and more need for a lot of hot food to stop you freezing.

In my next post I’ll give people an update on where I am with my money and my meals.

It’s good to be back in sunny Santa Barbara!

6 Responses to “Hungry in the Windy City”

  1. debby February 2, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    I am enjoying your blog and look forward to following along. I began a month long food stamp challege on my blog this week. hope to learn some tricks and tips from you

    • Erik Talkin February 4, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

      That’s great, Debby. The more people who are trying the challenge, the more attention we can bring to this issue. Hopefully you checked out the article on the process of running a food stamp challenge on my blog.

      • debby February 5, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

        Thank you for the link, I will be sure to check it out!

  2. eatinginSB February 4, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    Did you say 1200 families a month! Wow. Lot of food, and many hours of volunteer and paid service. The running of it sounds similar to Unity Shop or Catholic Charities here in SB.
    Erik – I have a question. What is SNAP and foodbanks relationship? I thought that people used Foodbanks who did not qualify for SNAP. Or are they supposed to be a supplement to SNAP benefits? I wonder why are you do a foodstamps challenge instead of just living off foodbank food? Thanks.

    • Erik Talkin February 4, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

      Thanks for the question. We have no direct relationship with SNAP. It is only in the last few years that food banks across the country have become involved in SNAP outreach as a way of making the food bank network more effective by lessening the amount of food we actually need to provide through our warehouses. SNAP is a certain kind of safety net that certain people are eligible for. As I have discovered in my Food Security Challenge, SNAP is not enough to cover food, you need the support of the Foodbank and its member agencies and the supplement of food we provide. The Foodbank supports all people who need help food assistance. My challenge involves me living off both the equivalent of the food stamp money and also the food that you would get from the food bank, so as to have the most realistic challenge environment.

      On 2/4/13 9:35 AM, “Foodbank CEO lives for a month on food stamps”

      • eatinginSB February 4, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

        Thanks for reply. In understand as well that the county “earns” money so to speak for every person receiving foodstamp benefits.
        I have to admit I am sort of new to how the food bank works, but from my experience it is not for all people who need help…always. For example there is a mobile pantry this upcoming Saturday at the Goleta boys and Girls club. They give food to everyone without asking questions. A lot of foodbank food though goes to other agencys I believe. This is where you might correct me. They have fairly strict rules…prob to protect their food supply. I use Catholic Charities right now and you have be be employed to receive access to the pantry. (I don’t know about seniors.)

        Debby – Good luck on your challenge.

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