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COOK COUNTY CONNECTIONS: Food Access in Cook County During COVID-19

Aug 14, 2020 01:37PM ● By Editor

By Elsa Lunde, AmeriCorps member serving with Public Health from Cook County MN - August 14, 2020

Hello. I am Elsa Lunde, and I am wrapping up my 2020 summer service as an AmeriCorps Emergency Response Initiative service member with the Cook County Emergency Operations Center. During my term of service, I collected the following data on food access in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was able to interview two local food producers, one grocery store, and several staff who works with federal and local food access programs. On top of this project I worked on: assisting Great Expectations School in the setup of their food access program, volunteering to distribute excess food at Ruby’s Pantry, and coordinating food distribution events with AEOA. I have learned a lot about my community and am excited to share. Below I have summarized the data I acquired relating to food access from producers, food markets and food access programs throughout Cook County. 

Producers 

Local producers at the Creaking Tree Farm and Good Nature Farm have been supported by the community and have seen an increased interest in local food. 

The Northwoods Food Project Farmers Market has been closed due to COVID-19. As a result, there has been a decline in purchases. One farm has supplemented this loss by increasing sales to the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op and through the sale of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. The CSA program offers members the chance to pay a lump sum to secure a weekly box of produce, or share, during the growing season.

Another farm increased CSA shares and started an online market. Due to COVID-19, producers offering CSA shares must purchase additional supplies, such as bins, masks and gloves, to keep interactions low-contact. Additionally, because the farms must be able to fill all  shares throughout the season, they are required to plant excess produce. 

Food Markets

Cook County Whole Foods Co-op has experienced high demand and community support. Throughout the pandemic, they have seen high demand for bulk items, rice, flour, perishables, produce and dairy. The co-op limited some items due to shortages, including toilet paper, canned beans, packaged rice and bulk rice. Sales in deli foods and in-house produced foods declined initially but are picking up again. There have been no rapid price changes in any sectors as of late June. Customers are purchasing in larger quantities and shopping fewer times a week.

Per anecdotal reports, Gene’s Foods and Johnson’s Big Dollar have experienced similar trends.

Food Access Programs 

A number of Cook County residents receive food access support through federal, state and community-based assistance programs. Federally-funded food access programs include SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children), though people apply for these programs locally through Public Health and Human Services (PHHS) and the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic. These programs provide financial assistance in purchasing food products. Community food access programs, which are primarily managed at the local level, provide food assistance via direct food distribution. 

There are common themes among the federal food assistance programs accessed during the pandemic. PHHS staff reported that temporary increases in benefits through SNAP, federal stimulus checks and unemployment insurance resulted in fewer food-related calls or concerns about benefits ending. Staff has, however, seen an increase in mental health concerns and calls. Income maintenance staff who administer SNAP has had difficulty with constant policy change, as this makes it difficult to advise clients. In Cook County, WIC has seen no changes in enrollment or with breastfeeding rates over the last half year. (Breastfeeding moms have expressed relief that they don’t have to worry about formula supply chains, and there has been increased interest in learning about the immune benefits of breastfeeding.) Overall, federal food access programs have not seen many food related changes. 

Cook County’s community food access programs – Snacks and Packs, Ruby’s Pantry, the Cook County Food Shelf, and The Hub – have seen much higher demand for services.

Throughout 2020, Ruby’s Pantry shares have gone up. They peaked in April but are still at an all-time high. Ruby’s Pantry is receiving a better variety of food during the pandemic. Staff isn’t sure if this is because a new position was created to find healthier sources or because of the pandemic itself.

The Snacks and Packs program, which provides food access to school-aged youth in Cook County,  has also experienced increased numbers. Program Manager Diane Booth normally receives requests for anywhere from 19 to 49 packs; the number is up to 63 and climbing.

Meals on Wheels (MOW) and take-out meals increased from 565 in May to 667 in June.

Food shelf numbers are down for multiple reasons. Families have more money for food due to increased SNAP and unemployment insurance benefits. Additionally, some community members are concerned about COVID-19 exposure and are not doing in-person pick-up. An ability to order in bulk has also contributed to lower participation numbers.

Staff and volunteer numbers are at a low for Ruby’s Pantry, the food shelf, MOW, and Senior Dining. MOW and the Senior Dining program donations are down, while the cost of foods has risen. Overall, most of the community food access programs have seen increasing numbers, and they don’t expect these numbers to decrease to the pre-pandemic level anytime soon. 

Looking Ahead 

Moving into the future, programs will need to continue to seek funding as well as ensure that they have enough volunteers/staff working with food programs.  As COVID-19 benefits change, community members may need to adjust how they access food. And, as the pandemic continues, PHHS will need to  keep a close eye on how isolation and quarantine are impacting community members’ income and ability to access food.

Learn more about Cook County food access during the COVID-19 pandemic during a virtual presentation at 3pm Friday August 14.  See the Cook County PHHS Facebook page for more information on this event.

You can also visit our website at www.cookcountyphhs.org, contact us via email at [email protected] or follow us on Facebook @CookCountyPHHS to learn more about our work in supporting the health, safety and wellbeing of Cook County.  

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service

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