July 2018 - Calice Robins, Summer 2018 Extern

I chose to volunteer with the UI Health Food Pantry because I had noticed the presence of food deserts in my community and other Black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago. I learned about food deserts in previous high schools classes and afterwards it became a problem I was hard to ignore. Through Dr. Figueroa, I learned that 20 percent of Chicago inhabitants face food insecurity , meaning they do not have access to healthy food to last through a month. I also learned that 30 percent of produce foods ends up thrown away in the United States. There’s tremendous environmental and monetary costs to disregarding food.

I think one of the most effective ways to combat a food desert is to give people access to healthy food that has little to no cost to them. I’m really grateful to have gotten to work in a food pantry like the UI Health Pantry. Dr. Figueroa puts in extra effort to ensure that our clients can provide their families with full and healthy meals. The UI Health pantry had everything from potatoes, pasta, bread, cereal, oatmeal, uncooked meats, prepared meals, and a variety of fresh produce. The food pantry also was very culturally aware. Many of our clients were Latinx and women and we were able to serve them with cultural foods such as tomatillos, mangos, cilantro, ginger, avocados, beans, and feminine products.

During my time at the UI Health pantry, I completed daily tasks such as opening the pantry, assisting clients with registration, helping clients shop, overseeing inventory, sorting through produce, and closing the pantry. One of my favorite experiences was going to Imperfect Produce to participate in food rescue. Imperfect Produce is a warehouse full of produce that didn’t meet USDA standards and we got to leave away with a car or two, packed with fresh produce to take back to our clients. I was extremely proud of the pantry team when the Great Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) came for a walk-trough and evaluation and left us with zero citations. The GCFD allowed the pantry to expand and it was amazing to see the food pantry transition and grow.

Since the opening of the pantry in January, the UI Health Pantry has reached 3000 visitors and given out over 80,000 pounds of food . These numbers reflect the amount of food rescued, food waste reduced and the amount of families benefited. My work improved daily at the pantry. After the first weeks, the job began to feel like clockwork and it felt great to see the difference my position made in how the pantry ran. The best advice, I could give to someone interested in volunteering is to go into the pantry unbiased and realizing what it could be like to be in a client's position. Many people have the misconception that food pantries serve only homeless people and though we do have some clients who are housing insecure, the majority of are clients work everyday and are just trying to make ends meet. I learned a lot from working in the food pantry. The people I was able to serve and the people I served with made the experience even better. Volunteering is extremely important because it allows you to give back to your community, meet new people, grow new relationships and numerous other benefits. Overall, this opportunity meant a lot to me because I got to tackle a problem that was personal to me.

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July 5, 2019 - Rosa De La Torre, UIC Medical Student

Food and Biases

The one thing in the world that I love the most, besides my family, fiancé and God, is food. I grew up in a household where my mom was always cooking up something delicious on the weekend. Every get-together we had with family and friends was centered around food – arroz, frijoles, tamales, enchiladas, carnitas, tacos…you name it. My brothers and I never wore the latest shoes or clothing, but my parents always worked hard to provide us with as much as they could, and one of those was food. Although there were times where my dad would come home with food from our local Salvation Army pantry, we were fortunate enough to never have had to experience true hunger. This week, I was reminded in many ways how our environment influences our health, most specifically how our environment determines whether we have access to a healthy, home cooked meal.

“We believe food is medicine”, was how our brief orientation session began on Tuesday morning as we were preparing to distribute food to the patients of Jorge Prieto Family Health Center and surrounding neighborhoods. Before the food truck arrived, there were families already lined up (some with a pink slip and others with only a number), patiently waiting to receive their bags of food. Although the setting was very different from our UI Health Pilsen food pantry, I felt right at home shopping with clients, which is a humbling experience I have learned to appreciate. Shopping with someone is a unique one-on-one experience where you encounter someone at their most vulnerable and work together towards a common goal – fitting in as much food as possible without tearing the bag. While the connection only lasts for a few minutes, seeing their face brighten up as you help them choose food from one station to another is priceless. However, as the morning progressed, I was disappointed in how the food was being distributed. Considering the food truck was stationed outside Jorge Prieto FHC, priority was given to their patients (people with a pink slip) while those who were not waited in line even longer. In fact, there were families and individuals who arrived before 8am who did not receive their food until 30 – 45 mins before closing, which by then most of the produce was gone. Similarly, during my visit to Pilsen Little Village CMHC food pantry, I witnessed how clients patiently waited outside in the blazing hot summer weather for 30 mins to receive their food, which consisted mostly of bread and canned food.

While I strongly believe access to food should be a basic human right, I also believe access to healthy food can prevent many diseases and reduce morbidity and mortality among those of lower SES; thus, becoming our responsibility, as clinicians, to screen all patients for food insecurity. For instance, we had a patient in clinic this week who seemed to have everything well put together. She is a senior in college majoring in pre-medicine with the goal of becoming a physician. I initially wasn’t planning to give her a survey because “her responses would probably be ‘normal’”, I thought. However, if I hadn’t taken the time to go over the survey with her, I wouldn’t have discovered she has been limiting how much she eats for the past 12 months because of lack of reliable income and financial support from her mother. It is very easy to judge someone by their appearance. Just because someone looks “well put together” and doesn’t “look poor”, doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling to make ends meet, which is why it is in our patient’s best interest, to take a few extra minutes to ask what other health and social-related needs they may have.

My mother has always said, “when there is a will, there is a way”, which has also resonated a lot with me this week. While I was volunteering at the GCFD food truck, I saw one of our clients from the food pantry lining up to receive food. I am not going to lie, but initially I thought, “I wonder if she really needs this food, I just saw her at the food pantry on Monday”. I immediately felt ashamed, when I saw her accompanied by other women who looked somewhat disheveled and in need (again me being biased). “Perhaps she is an ally in her community and also in need for food”, I thought. During my community visits on Friday, I also met an older gentleman who is a regular at both the Pilsen Little Village food pantry and our food pantry, who shared with me how he used to be a software programmer and eventually lost his job because he couldn’t keep up with the new technological advances in his field. He walks over 2 miles on Fridays when he travels from one pantry to the other, “Thank goodness I have my own shopping cart. Or else I don’t know how I would carry my food,” he shared with me. Similarly, I met two, Asian elderly women who were traveling from Pilsen Little Village food pantry to Benton House, the second pantry to visit on my list. We had gotten off at different bus stops, but immediately recognized them as I was walking away from the Benton House. Unfortunately, Benton House wasn’t open for food distribution because of the holiday, and walked away, with downcast eyes after I informed them the food pantry was closed. I never realized the distance and time it takes for someone to travel to a food pantry, especially when they don’t have reliable transportation and/or are traveling to multiple pantries across the Chicagoland area. When people are forced to provide food for themselves or their family, I have learned that they will travel that extra mile or two to receive as much as they can. While many are proactive about finding social services, they need, what happens to those who don’t know the language or aren’t aware of services offered? Why not lift the burden off their shoulders, and guide them through this process?

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September 2018 - Carly Marble, Summer 2018 Extern

After working at the UIHealth Pilsen food pantry this summer, I have realized that the pantry is about so much more than food; it is about love. Every single day I was blown away by all the ways simple acts of kindness can change lives, and how eager all the volunteers are to show love. I find that people often get caught up in personal differences and neglect to think about how we are the same. We all have our basic needs: food, shelter, and love just to name a few. The food pantry excels at providing more than just the food they advertise. Week after week, real relationships are formed and before you know it, people come for not only food, but for love. They can come for acceptance. They can come and feel welcome and cared for. This is especially demonstrated in the food pantry’s mission to serve more than just the typical canned and dried foods that are offered at so many other pantries I have worked with. The culturally relevant foods, as well as the many of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables that are given away, are so appreciated and welcomed by the customers. Many of the shoppers express joy at the many options, and are grateful for the choice to shop for types of food that are not only healthy, but also enjoyable and fresh. I grew up in a home that was food insecure, so I know how difficult it can be to fulfill those needs without the necessary funds. The UIHealth food pantry makes this not only a possibility for its customers, but a priority. It was easy to see on a day to day basis how offering these choices is changing lives for the better. Additionally, the volunteers are amazing at making people coming to the pantry feel comfortable and helping them realize that there is no shame in asking for help. Food insecurity can often be framed as a shameful experience, when in fact, it is extremely common. According to the USDA, 15 million U.S. households were food insecure at some point in 2017. The kind and attentive attitude the volunteers demonstrate helps break down any initial reservations or shame that some customers may be experiencing. Their kind and helpful attitudes help shift the narrative away from shame and towards love. However, the UIHealth food pantry doesn’t limit their outreach to people who come to them. One of my favorite things to participate in every other week was making meal kits for the street medicine group to take to the homeless. I loved receiving the reports about how grateful people were to receive medical care from the group as well as food from the pantry. It excites me that we are able to go to people that can’t come to us and still help fulfill their basic needs and show them love. All these wonderful projects and the amazing volunteers that staff the pantry make it an organization that I am proud to be a part of. I am so excited to see the many ways that the UIHealth food pantry continues to help the community around it by providing food, as well as love, to the Pilsen community.

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