Austin program delivers food for people with disabilities

After seeing the success of a pilot program that aims to ease food insecurity for the disabled community in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, organizers are looking to expand the program to serve 10 times as many clients.

The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities started the in-home delivery pilot in February with the help of the Vivery Idea Lab, an organization that aids food banks and pantries with a centralized “find food” map and digital tools. The program is a partnership with the Community Safety Coordination Center and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Each of the 100 participants receives a box of pantry staples at the beginning of the month from one of four food pantries in the area, including Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, Circle Urban Ministries, Hope Community Church and Iglesia Evangélica. The boxes are categorized as standard, vegetarian, dairy and nondairy. A box of produce is provided in the latter part of the month by either Forty Acres Fresh Market or Dion’s Chicago Dream, the nonprofit behind Dream Fridge, Dream Vault and Dream Deliveries, all of which aid residents living in food deserts across the city and suburbs, according to Ashley Friend, managing director of the Vivery Idea Lab.

“Basically, by month three, we knew we had something special here that we wanted to keep going,” said Friend, a former leader at Lakeview Pantry, which is now called Nourishing Hope. “Vivery was built in partnership with the Food Depository to be a find food tool for food banks and pantries. We have been working in the Austin community for about 2½ years, really trying to understand the local challenges to accessing nutritious food and trying to build technological solutions that can help to alleviate barriers.”

The Thierer Family Foundation launched the endeavor and funded the first six months. The second six months are being funded by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Friend said. And plans are being made to expand the pilot program to more recipients and more Chicago communities.

As of August, the program has distributed over 27,000 pounds of food with more than 1,000 deliveries to 100 Austin residents. Friend says Vivery wants that number to grow to 1,000 people within the disabled community in five other neighborhoods in Chicago, including another 400 people in the Austin area. Replicating the Austin model, Vivery would to go into each community, connect with the leaders combating food insecurity and work with them to build the network further.

The Rev. Steve Epting of Hope Community Church said its food pantry has been active for 15 years. During the pandemic, he said, the pantry saw a 300% increase in clients. Epting said about 40% of the population that uses Hope’s food pantry has some type of disability.

“We serve on average about 1,000 people a month, so it only made sense of us to partner with Ashley and her team to … be able to deliver to those in need,” Epting said.

He added that the partnership between service agencies and the community is important to keep things growing. “Having food access, having delivery, having people to sort and serve — all of those things don’t come from one place, one source,” Epting said. “It’s a collective partnership agreement that we have and we depend on each other to serve our community.”

Vernia Palmer, a longtime Austin resident, signed up for the pilot because her mobility challenges made it difficult to get to a pantry and painful to wait in line for food. She called the program a blessing that benefits those like her.

A recent survey by Vivery showed that the average age of program participants is 56, and 85% are women with no children in the home. Survey participants said transportation, mobility challenges and wait times at food pantries were the biggest barriers they faced.

“Many food pantries are in the basement, so you either have to use stairs, which make them not accessible, or you have people who have communication access needs or somebody who’s been diagnosed with low vision who may not be able to navigate and need to be led through a food pantry or someone who is hard of hearing and may not feel welcome or be able to communicate at the pantry,” said Rachel Arfa, commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Arfa said a benefit of the pilot program was the creation of 38 jobs for residents in the Austin and Garfield Park communities, so those who deliver the food to participants come from the community they serve.

“Participants get the same set of drivers each time so they get to know the people,” Friend said. “We heard one story of one of the drivers setting up somebody’s router for them.”

Circle Urban Ministries outreach coordinator Darriels Anderson, left, gives bags of food to delivery driver Jessica Sanabria on Sept. 7, 2023.

Arfa talked about a participant who was excited to receive cherries in a delivery. The participant said it’d been years since they had cherries. Friend said that’s the kind of thing many people take for granted.

Arfa said the pandemic taught us how technology can be an effective tool. For example, it made the routing infrastructure more efficient for those at the food pantries and food banks. She hopes technology continues to help make lives easier for those in the disabled community.

“With the pandemic, it became easier to expose the access gaps in our system. … We want to make sure that nobody is left behind,” Arfa said. “One thing I think about is making sure that we don’t forget the lessons we learned after the pandemic. We’re not going back to what we had. We should continue to expand what we have learned and to match that going forward.”

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