Catholic groups nourish communities in food deserts

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Catholic parishes, organizations try to fill gaps in food deserts

Parishioners from St. Sabina distribute 400 boxes of food to families in need on April 20, 2023. The boxes include healthy food items such as fresh fruits, vegetables, chicken and beef. The parish has held several giveaways throughout the spring and summer. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A volunteer moves some of the 400 boxes of food toward the corner of Damen Avenue where volunteers will load them into cars. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Pfleger directs a car where to pick up food boxes. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Some of the 400 boxes of food sit on the corner of Damen Avenue near the parish. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Parish volunteers prepare to load some of the 400 boxes of food to those in need into cars. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Thulani Magwaza, pastor of St. Sabina, loads a box of food into a truck. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

Sharon Tillmon has been working to feed hungry people in Chicago for a quarter-century, starting when she began working for Catholic Charities at the St. Sabina Food Pantry in her own Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.

Now Catholic Charities senior director for community food and essentials, Tillmon has been dismayed as much-heralded grocery stores that opened on the South Side have pulled out.

The high-profile exits of Aldi from 7627 S. Ashland Ave. in June 2022, Whole Foods from 832 W. 63rd St. in Englewood in November 2022 and Walmart from 8431 S. Stewart Ave. in April make it more difficult for families to get what they need, Tillmon said, but they also make it harder for people to build a sense of community.

The Whole Foods store eventually was replaced by a Save-A-Lot.

“I just think it’s a very selfish, very selfish thing,” Tillmon said of the stores’ decisions to leave. “It’s like somebody dangles hope in front of you, and then says, ‘You’re not good enough.’ And takes it away again. It’s an affront to our dignity. It takes a whole other thought process. You have to understand that the whole community suffers.”

The departure of Walmart was an especially hard blow, she said, because of what it offered beyond groceries, from a pharmacy and clothing to an onsite employment training program, and a safe public space. Its loss, Tillmon said, creates not just a “food desert” but a “resource desert.”

“I live in Auburn-Gresham,” Tillmon said. “That we no longer have access to a store like Walmart — we no longer have access to fresh food. Food is an opportunity to promote and preserve community, preserve culture, preserve family. Not having those fresh foods, and the effects of that on the family and the health of people who live in the family …

“When someone’s hungry, that effect that has on the community as a whole, that’s devastating,” she continued. “It’s the physical effects, it’s the lack of dignity, it’s the eroding of hope. You can’t participate in community the same way. Seniors can’t participate in community if they’re hungry, children can’t participate in school in the same way. The big piece with Walmart and stores like that closing — people don’t understand that they deserve — food is a fundamental right. Fresh food is a fundamental right. It is an important issue.”

Tillmon is proud of the work Catholic Charities does, serving more than 50,000 people last year on the South, Southwest and West sides in its food pantries, WIC stores for pregnant women and children and other programs. But it’s not enough, she said, especially as special COVID-19 benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program run out at a time when most of the people she sees suffering from food insecurity are children and members of working families who don’t make enough to get by.

It’s not enough, she said, especially when there are families who could buy food, if they could get to a store to do it.

St. Sabina Parish restarted its monthly food giveaways in response to the closings this spring, according to Father Michael Pfleger, the parish’s senior pastor, with 400 boxes distributed in under two hours.

“There’s not a commitment to serve people. It’s pure business,” Pfleger said of the store closures. “The thing that has been irritating to me is that we’re not asking for food places to be in the charity business. We want them to make money. But we also want them to be committed to communities.”

The 400 boxes of food that St. Sabina gives away each month cost a total of about $18,000, but Pfleger said the church is obligated to feed people who are hungry.

“The food giveaways we do are not nice things to do,” he said. “They are necessities because people are desperate. How do we as a church respond to these needs? We have to see the hurt. To me, it’s sinful that in this great nation that has so much prosperity, there are people living in our streets and eating out of garbage cans.”

St. Moses the Black Parish, 331 E. 71st St., operates a food pantry Tuesdays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon, serving 400 to 500 families a week, said Bri Pierce, the parish’s director of community outreach. People who come are looking for fresh food, including meat and produce, Pierce said.

“Those are the top things that people need in their households,” she said.

The people who come to the food pantry don’t usually share what led to them needing food or talk about the need for more grocery stores, she said.

“I think people in our community are just kind of used to it at this point,” she said. “They just have to find a way around it and figure it out.”

Pfleger and Tillmon both called for Catholics to help feed people now, whether through parishes or other organizations, and at the same time advocate for public policies to eradicate food deserts.

“We’re obligated as church, as the social service arm of the church to reach out,” Tillmon said. “Jesus did some of his best work around food, and we need to be who he is. He was one of us. We as a church, we owe that to people. We have to seek justice. We have to be of service to people. We have to love.”


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