The blog of the Urban Institute
September 5, 2019

A Leadership Program Is Helping Chicago Teens Bring Food to Their Community

August 21, 2019

Altgeld Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development, is an isolated community on the far south side of the city and is home to nearly 1,500 families. But it doesn’t have a single grocery store.

Within the past year, the only two food outlets in the community—a convenience store called Up Top and a small grocery outpost called Rosebud—closed, leaving residents with few options. The nearest fresh food retailer is a Walmart four miles up the highway—nearly twice as far as most people have to travel for groceries. Shoppers without cars are left to rely on taxis, friends and family, the city bus system, which requires three buses and takes over an hour, or the CHA bus that runs once a week. The only other option is a food pantry organized by the Local Advisory Council once a month.

Like others in the community, 20-year-old Elven Pickens and his family relied on Rosebud and Up Top for food, so the store closures were devastating. Pickens said the community is hurting, not just because Up Top provided food staples, but also because it served as a hub for residents to gather. “The store there was the center of the Gardens, the center of Altgeld. It’s where people came to, involved one another,” he told us.

The community’s only two food options closed while Pickens helped lead a group of Altgeld teens through the Teen Food Literacy Program. They used lessons from the program to coordinate a monthly food distribution event in their community, providing up to 125 families with fresh produce and other food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The tactics these teens and the program used to help young people overcome stigmas around food insecurity and access fresh food could be replicated in other places where young people struggle with food insecurity.

A pilot program that encourages teens to design their own solutions

Pickens is a community coach and activities coordinator for the Altgeld 10, a group of teen leaders working with the CHA’s on-site service provider, Metropolitan Family Services, to support the community through youth-led projects. In 2018, the Altgeld 10 participated in the Teen Food Literacy Program, which the Urban Institute originally developed for teens in Portland, Oregon. The pilot program, a 16-session leadership development program centered on food justice, aims to give young people an opportunity to learn about food systems and advocacy and, ultimately, to organize actions in their community.

Elven Pickens, a community coach and activities coordinator for the Altgeld 10, poses at the first food distribution event organized by the group of teen leaders in December 2018. Photo by Olivia Arena/Urban Institute.

Urban’s HOST research team began a partnership with the CHA, Metropolitan Family Services, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository to implement the program in Chicago. We provided the Altgeld 10 with the material and convened partners to support them, but the teens took over from there.

A teen-led event is important because teens do not participate in charitable food programs as often as younger kids, and they are more aware of social pressures and stigmas.

“[The youth] are struggling because they don’t want people to know. They don’t want people to know they are hungry. They don’t want people to know that they need something to eat. They won’t show up or they won’t talk,” Pickens said. “That’s why I build a relationship first; I’m in the same shoes as you. I’m hungry too. If you are going to sit here and be quiet, don’t let anybody know you need help, come out. That’s why we have new faces from the events we did, the distribution events. This is not to embarrass you. We just want to feed you.”

The Altgeld 10 wanted to tackle the stigma around being hungry and receiving food assistance, so they put their own spin on food distribution when they launched their monthly event. They created promotional materials, and Pickens promoted the food events through Facebook Live, answering questions and giving details to other teens.

We attended two of the group’s food distribution events to see the teens’ efforts in action. The group created a party-like atmosphere with music, a cooking demonstration, and gift bags. Volunteers made themed cookies and bags of candy to hand out, along with colorful grocery bags. Music blasted and teens mingled as they worked at the food and welcome stations. The teen organizers said it was important that guests not only receive a bag of food but also get to choose what they want, observe a cooking demonstration, and interact with each other. 

Key components for success

The collection of supportive partners and the commitment to giving teens the power to shape their program were critical to the program’s initial success in attracting teens and serving members of the community. As the convener, Urban played a small role in the web of partners that supported the teens. Dedicated service providers, a willing housing authority, and an eager and well-resourced food bank made the events possible.

Convening partners with different strengths and resources is essential to addressing systemic and cross-sector challenges like food access. But these events are just one small attempt to change a broader systemic problem, as food insecurity is a complex issue that requires financial investment and policy change to solve. We aim to build on this pilot and to conduct a full evaluation to see if this approach can be a model for other communities facing similar challenges.

Most importantly, community members have the best insights to design solutions to their problems. The curriculum and food distribution events gave teens the space to mold a program for them designed by them. They offered a chance for teens to address seemingly overpowering systems affecting their neighborhood.

Pickens said he sees food, specifically a full-service grocery store, as an investment in the community and an opportunity to feed neighbors. That’s why he wants to open his own grocery store in Altgeld Gardens. “I want to give back to my community,” he said.

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