A New Food Pantry Is Helping Show The Many Ways a Food Desert Can Bloom

Windowless church basements often host food pantries. A Little Village group flipped the script and opened a beautiful one in a redone corner store.

By Natalie Moore

WBEZ ChicagoIn the back of Pan De Vida, a new food pantry in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, a brightly colored mural graces a back wall. A green cactus is prominently displaced.

It’s a curious choice of design. Cacti are found in deserts. “Food deserts” are used to describe communities with a dearth of healthy options. But food justice advocates have pushed back because deserts are a part of natural ecosystems.

“A cactus can live through extreme heat and through low temperatures for lack of water. And that really shows the resiliency of our community,” said Matt DeMateo, executive director of New Life Centers of Chicagoland, a community-based nonprofit behind the food pantry, which opened last week. “We’ve been battling the pandemic of COVID-19. We’ve been battling the pandemic of violence. We’ve been battling the pandemic of racism. And so as we are in this space, the cactus is a picture of that beauty of that resiliency.”

Pan De Vida is on the corner of 27th Street and Lawndale Avenue in a revamped corner store. Food pantries are typically set up in windowless church basements. And for many people in need, standing in long lines for bread and canned goods is stigmatizing.

Sparkling water and flowers are at the entrance. Plants line the shelves. A coffee bar and fireplace greet customers. Shelves are stocked with cereal, nuts, pancake mix and peanut butter. Grocery stores donate angus steak and sushi. But there are also culturally relevant foods in the largely Mexican neighborhood, such as limes, avocados and tortillas. Customers have access to wraparound services, such as employment help, and they can use computers.

The food pantry began in a different form 12 years ago when a mother and daughter team shopped at Trader Joe’s and fed 100 families. When the pandemic hit, people needed more food. An empty corner store beckoned and a drive-up food pantry operated outside before New Centers took over the space.

“We started feeding more families. Then Barack Obama highlighted us on his Instagram that got about a million likes. And so then everybody started calling us —- Rick Bayless, Intelligentsia Coffee, Garretts popcorn,” DeMateo said. Since then, 2.2 million people have been fed, he said.

New Life Centers connected with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which started giving grants to organizations last year for nonprofits to give face lifts to food pantries. Donations poured in and now Pan De Vida plans to operate five days a week, up from twice a week.

Young people in Little Village have been key to distributing food and designing Pan De Vida. Alex Ramon, 20, is operations manager.

“As a young boy, I always wanted to give back but never knew how. But now growing up here, getting to know people, getting to know the neighbors, building relationships with clients and with coworkers, I think has built me as a man to want to give more,” Ramon said.

Food access is expanding in differing ways in Chicago outside of the normal grocery store paradigm. Earlier this year, Go Green Community Fresh Market opened in Englewood. Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) is the nonprofit operating it and seeks to create a healthy corner store concept in a community where the opposite often exists. On the West Side, Forty Acres Fresh Market is a startup grocer that’s currently mobile with a mission to provide residents with healthy affordable food. Urban Growers Collective is building farms across the city. Meanwhile, Whole Foods in Englewood is closing and Dominick’s shuttered Chicago stores several years ago.

Chicago State University professor Daniel Block studies food access and called Pan De Vida and other new ventures exciting.

“Kroger coming in and opening a box store has a different connection than these smaller stores that are community focused,” Block said. “They are about community development and community ownership as well as food access.”

He said for 20 years activists have been strategizing about doing this kind of work. Block gave a nod to erstwhile Chicagoan LaDonna Redmond, who worked on a corner store concept in Washington Park back in 2009. Block said a food pantry such as Pan De Vida offers dignity along with canned goods.

“While emergency food is charity, it should not be about creating social difference between the givers and the people who are accepting the food,” Block said.That’s just as important, he said, as the cartons of eggs, milk and grapefruit juice on the shelves of Pan De Vida.