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.