Chicago, IL

Chicago's Migrant Struggle With Hunger as New Arrivals Have Half the Food They Need

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Despite the abundance of food in local grocery stores, thousands of migrants face hurdles in securing adequate nutrition due to restrictions, uncoordinated food distribution

In the heart of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, Jessana Malaue, a Venezuelan migrant, grapples not only with the worries of providing for her family but also the complexities of food insecurity in her newfound home. As she navigates the chilly confines of a crowded shelter, she reflects on the paradox of abundance and scarcity coexisting.

The Plight of Chicago's Migrants

Tens of thousands of migrants, predominantly from Venezuela, find themselves in Chicago, escaping a homeland plagued by decreased food availability, hyperinflation, and economic instability. While Chicago boasts well-stocked grocery stores, feeding the daily 14,000 food-insecure migrants proves challenging. Most of the migrants have times they go hungry and more often they have less than half what they and their families need to eat.

Strains on Existing Resources

Limited legal work opportunities force migrants to rely on state and local aid. The Greater Chicago Food Depository, receiving $10.5 million in fall 2023, shoulders the burden alongside Chi-CARE, a volunteer-based nonprofit. This influx compounds existing strains on food pantries, witnessing a surge in demand.

Local food pantries, like Nourishing Hope and Pilsen Food Pantry, witness a significant uptick in demand. As migrants seek assistance, these organizations adapt, offering ready-to-eat items and addressing cultural food preferences.

A spokesperson for the food pantry Nourishing Hope says they are serving 25 percent more migrants, including through their pantires and online delivery service compared to last year. CEO Kellie O’Connell said that in April alone, the organization registered around 360 new households at the Sheridan Market in Lakeview, one of their busiest locations. In October, O'Connell said, the pantry registered 800 new households.

The Internation Relations Context

The migration surge is a symptom of Venezuela's deeper socioeconomic issues. A 2019 World Food Program report highlighted widespread food insecurity, driven by decreased food availability and a faltering economy.

Access to nutritious and diverse food options has become nearly unattainable for millions of Venezuelans, contributing to a significant number migrating to the United States. In 2019, the World Food Program, under authorization from President Nicolás Maduro's regime, conducted a Food Security Assessment.

The findings revealed that 2.3 million people, constituting 7.9% of the population, faced severe food insecurity, while an additional 7 million (24.4%) experienced moderate food insecurity. Although there has been a slight improvement in food availability since 2019, it remains insufficient to adequately address the needs of the Venezuelan population

City's Response and Challenges

Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services spent over $15.6 million, partnering with Open Kitchens to feed migrants. However, logistical challenges persist, with uncoordinated food distribution at police stations and substandard meals in city shelters.

Since August 2022, the Department of Family and Support Services in the city has allocated $15,602,475 to nourish migrants through a contract with Open Kitchens. However, given the influx of over 22,100 migrants since the previous year, the city has sought assistance from the Food Depository.

This collaboration extends to more than a dozen shelters across the city. The Food Depository, in conjunction with Chi-CARE, a volunteer-driven nonprofit, collaborates with mutual aid groups to provide meals for the 14,000 migrants housed in police stations.

Feeding such a large number has proven challenging, as noted by Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Brandon Johnson. The city has submitted a proposal for a yearlong contract that would pay to provide regular meals to migrants beginning in January 2024. The problem is that the amount is less than half of what was spent on migrant meals in 2023.

Migrants Navigating Nutrition Programs

Migrants turn to federal programs like WIC for assistance. Luckily there are a number of public programs that don't use immigration status as a determinant of who can recieve assistance. However, restrictions on bringing in outside food to shelters create hurdles. Migrants grapple with balancing nutritional needs against storage limitations and shelter regulations.

Some of the resources in addition to food that migrants, regardless of whether they have protected status of not, can participate in are WIC (nutrition), SNAP (nutrition), Summer Meal Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and School Meal Program, among others. See more here.

Community-Based Solutions

Chicago's Food Depository collaborates with minority-owned businesses, such as BJ's Market and Garifuna Flava, adapting menus to migrants' preferences. This community-based model fosters a sense of collaboration and support.

Despite the challenges, businesses like BJ's Market and Garifuna Flava find fulfillment in supporting migrants. Owners highlight the transformative impact on their establishments and the joy of contributing to a communal effort.

A Glimpse into Malaue's World

For Jessana Malaue, a simple trip to the WIC grocery store unveils both the possibilities and limitations. While she can provide fruits for her daughter, cooking options at the shelter remain restricted, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the migrant food crisis.

In the heart of a bustling city, Chicago's migrants navigate an intricate web of challenges, with local organizations striving to provide sustenance amidst the complexities of protected status for some not others, work permits, availability of jobs for migrants, shelter living all of which contributes to food insecurity. After all this time, there still appears to be no well organized, thought out plan to provide even the basics, like food and shelter, of what these Chicago migrants need as winter begins.

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