Before COVID-19 hit, roughly 1.39 million people were food insecure in the state of Illinois and roughly 800,000 of those people lived in Chicago (Chicago). However, as COVID-19 has continued to spread these numbers have drastically increased due to recent unemployment, loss of purchasing power as a result of panicked shoppers, and the inability to travel to grocery stores or other food suppliers. Nearly “178,000 Illinois residents applied for unemployment insurance benefits” (Wisinewksi) in the last two weeks of March. Those who qualify as food insecure have grown proportionately as unemployment has surged. As of 2018, 20.6% of the city’s population lived in poverty (Chicago). In the Urban Agriculture as a climate change and disaster risk reduction strategy it was found that “in low-income neighbourhoods…many poor urban households reduced the number of meals during financial and food crises and turned to cheaper and less nutritious food, with negative effects on the nutritional status of family members” (Dubbeling, 33). As COVID-19 worsens, its impact on the food insecure population will continue to increase. It is necessary to provide healthy foods to those communities facing food insecurity right now. Food businesses are also struggling at this time because they have been forced to close or reduce sales and some restaurants have extra food supplies from a lack of sales. To confront the issues of food insecurity and reduced business for food businesses, this research paper will address the following questions: 1) How are restaurants supporting their communities and tackling issues of food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic? 2) Is there a network connecting restaurants to food pantries? COVID-19 has challenged communities and businesses alike; to survive this pandemic, communities and businesses will have to rely on each other for support. Evidence suggests that a local food business is becoming a sustainable force for their community in the Chicagoland area. The focus on the Chicagoland area stems from being in lockdown just north of the city as well as the unusual circumstances brought about by the pandemic i.e. only remote access to sources, limited knowledge of the pandemic, a lack of up-to-date statistics, etc. Yet despite it all, the unique relationship between communities, food, and food businesses will need to be tapped into in order to come back better than ever after the pandemic.

To fully understand the current situation and food insecurity, it is necessary to recognize how the city has dealt with past challenges. Within the past one-hundred years World War I, the Spanish Flu, World War II threatened food security in the city. This led to both state mandated and community based initiatives which relied on creativity and ingenuity. During the fall of 1918 the Spanish flu hit Chicago amidst the already food rationed city. The self-rationing of food began to help with war effort and was already in place before epidemic began. Food became scarcer as the epidemic ravaged the area. Those who could donated food and bedding to the ill through church networks. Non-essential businesses closed but public schools stayed open because it was thought “that children were better off in schools, where they were under watch and kept from roaming the streets” (Influenza Encyclopedia). By the end of the epidemic more than 10,000 Chicagoans died in the epidemic that began locally on Sept. 8, 1918 (Influenza Encyclopedia). Similar rationing occurred during WWII. State mandated food rationing began in the late spring of 1942 and continued throughout the war. Coupons, tokens, food stamps became the main way to buy food. Sugar and meat tightly rationed which led to the experimentation of new recipes and products (Duis). A cookbook published in 1942 titled Recipes to Match Your Sugar Ration has a collection of recipes to use when sugar is not available. Victory gardens also popped up throughout the city which added produce and variety to meals. Victory gardens were in backyards, school grounds, and empty city lots. It offered a way for Chicagoans to take control of their own food supply and was maintained after the war. The rationing of food and shortage of food led people to be resourceful and creative. The victory gardens especially illustrate a sustainable model post-war.

Coming back to today’s crisis, the current pandemic has taken its toll on the city in a new way. As of Thursday, April 30th more than 50,355 people have tested and positive and 2,215 people have died from COVID-19 in Illinois, however almost half of the reported cases are in the Chicagoland area (Chicago, IL). To reduce the spread of the disease, Illinois residents have been under shelter-in place orders since March 21st which will continue at least until May 31st. This order means that all non-essential businesses and schools have closed. What does this mean for the Chicago area? The pandemic has severely impacted communities and has highlighted the systemic inequalities in society. In Chicago, poverty-stricken communities which are disproportionality communities of color, are contracting and dying at a quicker rate from COVID-19 than other areas. These communities are also facing higher rates of food insecurity. Overall, food insecurity has seen a drastic rise in numbers since the end of March. For instance, the Northern Illinois Food Bank distributed 6.1 million meals which was half a million meals more over their goal for the month of March. This number roughly equals 200,000 meals served daily (Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates). The distribution models for food banks have changed to adapt to the social distancing and hygiene protocols that are being enforced throughout the state. They are receiving support from the state to make sure they are able to keep up with demand to ensure that everyone has access to food during this time. The Greater Chicago Food Depository has been able to keep two-thirds of their food pantries open but they have “shifted to a ‘grab-and-go’ format where food-insecure families simply pick up prepackaged boxes or bags, instead of the pre-pandemic method of shopping for the specific kinds of food they wanted” (Pope). Their warehouse operations have also changed to accommodate social distancing policies, but this means that there is less room to store food. Shelter-in-place orders have also impacted all businesses but especially restaurants. Restaurants remain open for take-out or delivery, but some have decided to temporarily or permanently close for the safety of their employees and customers (Hennessy). Business is down for most restaurants and employees have been laid off (Kim).

What can be done to help communities and local food businesses? The pandemic has created a new wave of creativity and ingenuity; one such company that is supporting all levels of the food chain—from producer to consumer—is Hewn Bread. The initiatives that Hewn Bread has implemented is not necessarily a solution, but an example of good practices that other businesses could replicate to help fight food insecurity and promote businesses stability. To meet the growing needs of its community, Hewn Bread has stepped up to partner with local food banks; this work is not representative of all food businesses but serves as an example for other businesses in the industry. Hewn is owned and operated Ellen King and Julie Matthei in Evanston, IL just north of Chicago. Hewn is known for their bread and pastries which are made using only locally grown heritage grains (Our Story). They work with a dozen local farmers to source grain, produce, and dairy from Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In response to COVID-19 they built an online store with select products offering curbside pickup in addition to starting the Neighbor Loaf Initiative. The Neighbor Loaf Initiative is part of a partnership between Hewn and Artisan Grain Collaborative, or AGC. The Neighbor Loaf Initiative aims to support local communities and to highlight the importance of reginal food systems to support farmers, miller, and bakers. How does it work? Customers purchase a Neighbor Loaf from participating bakeries, like Hewn, which is made from locally sourced, sustainably grown grain. Bakers bake the Neighbor Loaves which contain at least 50% locally grown stone milled flour and then the loaves are distributed to community feeding organizations to support neighbors in need (Neighbor Loaves). Hewn distributes their Neighbor Loaves to Hillside Pantry in Northwest Evanston. Since beginning this initiative in late March, Hewn has provided Hillside with over 1,800 loaves of bread (Malin).

What does this do? For the community it supports emergency feeding organizations that are in need of bread. Most food banks rely on donations from retailers, but bread has not been as readily available, so retailers are unable to continue their donations. For the producer it secures the local grain chain during the pandemic because farmers are still planting grain and they need to know they’ll have a place to sell this year’s crop. Local mills also need to keep grinding last year’s grain while bakers are facing reduced revenue streams (Neighbor Loaves). Thus, the Neighbor Loaf Initiative is supporting the farmer, the miller, the baker, and the community. Hewn is also donating all extra loaves of bread to Beth Emet, local soup kitchen, and to Feast & Imbibe. Both of these organizations are providing meals to those who have been impacted by COVID-19 in the Evanston and North-Chicago area. Through this creative initiative, Hewn has stepped into a new role as a community supporter while maintaining their business at the same time.

This is an unprecedented time and highlighting how different businesses are maintaining their relationship with the community is important because good practices can be established and models can be set for other businesses. While the outcome of the future is unknown, how businesses are reacting now will impact their future and the future of the communities that they serve. David Chang of Momofuku Restaurant Group said: “I do not want to incite panic and hysteria, but I think for restaurants and the service industry, there is going to be a morbidly high business death rate. My fear is the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains, and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great.” (Life for Restaurants After COVID-19). The need to feed people who do not have access to food and to keep restaurants open grows every day. Linking businesses to communities is essential for the long-term survival of both groups because it provides reciprocal benefits; these include local sales taxes, jobs, innovation, and community connectedness. Thus, by using Hewn Bread as an example this concept is put into practice with the Neighbor Loaf Initiative. In “normal” times, local food businesses support the local economy, source local food suppliers, employ residents, etc. and during a crisis this support is needed even more. Local food businesses also create the atmosphere of the community and act as a place for gathering. During this crazy time, can this model be used by other food businesses? Could this be a sustained partnership after the pandemic and shelter-in-place order is removed? Can this be a sustainable model for business resilience?

Link to Hewn Bread:

Link to Artisan Grain Collaborative:


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