Illustration of hand reaching for canned food by Asia Babiuk
Illustration by Asia Babiuk

Last August, Don Craft was sitting in the Sky Café at the University of Chicago’s Medical Center for Care and Discovery, the institution’s flagship hospital in Hyde Park, when he noticed a small food pantry—just a few shelves—next to the restaurant cash register. His wife had been receiving treatment for an aneurysm for the past three weeks, so he spent most of his time at the hospital, eating one to two meals there every day. After a few days of revisiting the seemingly incongruous pantry, he realized the concept was both logical and brilliant. Curious, he decided to try one of the free lemon protein bars on offer. 

“I was in a financial position to get in line and order whatever I wanted. But the realization that there are many others that are not in that position…especially in the hospital…There are people who are temporarily displaced because they want to be near their loved one, they know that there are medical bills coming,” said Craft, who made a donation to the pantry to pay for his lemon bar.

Across the country, families waiting at sick children’s bedsides continue to struggle with food insecurity, access to transportation, housing, and financial support. In 2010, pediatric hospital chaplain Reverend Karen Hutt noticed that family members of patients were going hungry in the hospital. She took her concerns to Dr. Doriane Miller, who in turn took them to Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and medicine-geriatrics at UChicago Medical Center and director of the Lindau Laboratory, a women-led group of scientists at the University of Chicago dedicated to engineering solutions to injustice. 

Lindau had been working with the Medical Center’s Urban Health Initiative to rethink and rework the way it worked with its community to promote better health in the region. In 2011, they conducted a cross-sectional needs assessment study with 200 participants that found thirty-two percent of parents or other caregivers were going hungry during their child’s hospital stay, and sixty-six percent had been food insecure in the twelve months before the child’s hospitalization.

When Miller caught Lindau’s ear, Lindau had been on her way to give a lecture on health equity to Pritzker School of Medicine students. When she told them about Hutt and Miller’s observations, a group came up to her afterward, eager to volunteer their help. Together, a small cohort of medical students, chaplains, and researchers collaborated with the Lindau Lab to brainstorm ways to alleviate food insecurity in the hospital. 

Feed1st was established in 2010 as, to their knowledge, the first hospital-based self-serve food pantry system open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in the country. Founded on the principle that anyone in the hospital community can take as much food as they need for themselves and for others, the pantry serves hospital staff, patients, caregivers, and family. The shelves are stocked with non-perishable goods that Feed1st purchases from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Prior to COVID-19, there were six pantries: five in Comer Children’s Hospital (in the emergency department and on floors two, four, five, and six) and one in the Duchossois Center. Since then, the team has opened several more pantries, such as the one in the Sky Café. 

“People go to a cafeteria expecting to find food, and the fact that there is now also free food for people to take home [including] shelf staples, I think is incredible,” said Meryl Davis, a research assistant at the Lindau Lab and the Feed1st program lead. 

The Feed1st model prioritizes open access in order to reduce the stigma associated with the experience of food insecurity, cost of transportation, safety, and idiosyncratic hours. Instead, their pantry optimizes respect for people with hunger in their community. Feed1st pantries have served over 9,700 households and almost 29,000 individuals cumulatively over the past ten years.

“All human beings, regardless of our socioeconomic status, are driven to be independent organisms as much as possible,” said Lindau. “Most of us don’t want to rely on anybody else. For people who are reliant on food support from their community, this can feel very shameful. It’s extremely stressful. And we know that people want to move out of that reliance as quickly as they can.”

Growing up in the suburbs, Craft personally understood the stigma surrounding poverty in general. Having lived paycheck to paycheck at one point, he has memories of telling his landlord he did not have rent and of his kids complaining of hunger when the cupboards were bare.

“When I was struggling, I certainly didn’t want to let anyone know how bad I was struggling. I didn’t tell my family or friends,” said Craft. “There was one day that one of my stepsons brought home a bag from a neighbor. It had about twenty cans of food in it. I was so embarrassed that my stepson had just been truthful with the neighbors and had told them that there wasn’t much food in the house. I yelled at him and told him he shouldn’t have asked for the food. He told me that he didn’t ask and they just gave it to him. I felt like a failure. Many people out there probably saw me as one. I have come to realize that many people have it far worse than I ever had.”

While hospital food pantries are on the rise, such as in Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, most require proof of need and have rigid hours of operation, according to Lindau. She and her team made the decision that anyone could take what they need, without limits on how much they can take. They believe this is an important step in achieving food justice.

“What wasn’t being done was trusting people who are hungry to help themselves to the food they need in a socially acceptable way,” said Lindau. “And so there’s a huge life lesson in this, which is availing people in need of whatever it is they need with as few barriers as possible. It yields much bigger return on investment than whatever you get by restricting access.” Craft believes the Feed1st pantry policies have significantly worked to minimize the stigma.

“I think that having places that you don’t have to ask for food or prove that you need it is a great idea,” he said. “It’s hard to ask for help. It can be embarrassing and it hurts. I know that my self esteem was nonexistent. I hear certain rich people talk about lazy poor people. It’s such an ignorant statement. I worked two jobs for ten years. Many struggling people have multiple jobs. So anything to help people who need help without knocking their character and integrity is valuable. There is an unspoken value to not damaging someone’s self worth.”

On one comment card, a woman wrote that the pantry had been a lifesaver, since she did not have any other source of food while her husband was going through cancer treatment. On another, someone wrote that the model helped them, because they were not necessarily ready to admit they needed help with food access.

The pantry is only one component of Lindau’s work. Beginning in 2009, the Lindau Lab led a community-wide effort to create MAPSCorps. The youth-focused community asset mapping organization trains participating high school students to conduct a census of all the businesses and organizations in the communities they serve with the goal of producing high-quality data about community resources. The program operated from the lab until 2016, when it became an independent 501(c)(3) based in Hyde Park. The lab has also developed a program called CommunityRx to link patients with information about community-based services and resources, and is in the early stages of research into how and why systematically connecting families to food support and other related needs may benefit the health outcomes of both adults and children.

“We’re seeing more grassroots organizing, more expertise in our community around food justice,” said Lindau. “And we’re starting to think about what it means for a person, whether it’s a patient or a family member, or say a client at a social services agency, a patron at a library, who says ‘I’m hungry, help.’ What does it mean for them to get information about, say, a food pantry or soup kitchen, versus getting information about those things, plus connection to a food justice or a food advocacy organization? And our growing sense, coming from many signals, is that our intervention of alleviating hunger may be more powerful if we also connect people to these food advocacy and justice type opportunities.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 13.7 million households, or 10.5 percent of all U.S. households, experienced food insecurity during 2019. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem, with food insecurity doubling nationwide in April 2020, according to a Northwestern University survey. Now it is harder for essential workers to do their jobs, and reduced public transportation can make getting to grocery stores more difficult.

“Anyone who believes [hunger is not a real problem in our city] has to understand that it’s because we live in a tale of two cities. If you believe that food insecurity is not a thing, that means you’re only seeing your side of the city,” said Lindau. “As real as your experiences with your delivered groceries and your pickup are…It’s equally real, as many people are suffering with [the reality that] they have no idea where their next meal is going to come from. And right now, I’m extremely concerned that that desperation is going to get obviously worse with the cold winter months. The worst thing about this virus [is that] it’s a terrible, vicious cycle.”

The Feed1st team is working hard to adapt to COVID-19 guidelines while still stocking and distributing enough food to meet higher demand. So far, they were able to open four additional pantries in more visible and open locations, and between March and November alone, the team distributed over 12,000 pounds of food with the help of donations from the food depository and Morrison Food Services in the Sky Café. Furthermore, they developed the Feed1st Toolkit in May of 2019 to provide technical assistance for other organizations looking to launch an open-access food pantry. So far, they have received requests for assistance from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University, Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora, and St. Louis Children’s Hospital at Washington University.

“It’s a bright shining light for people,” said Craft. “We need more things like this to help light the way for people.  Like the neighbors who gave my son the cans.” 

Correction, February 6, 2021: This piece incorrectly identified the gender of a group. While the Lindau Lab was founded and is led by women, not all of its staff are women. The Weekly regrets this error.

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Lily Levine grew up in Los Angeles and is a current student at the University of Chicago studying global studies and health and society. This is her first piece for the Weekly.

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