Anabel Sarco found out she was pregnant with her son, Anthony, in February 2020 – just a month before life changed as we all knew it.

With so much unknown, the 35-year-old Cicero resident spent those early months of the pandemic staying home and away from others.

“Especially being pregnant, you don’t want to do anything because you don’t want to risk yourself, you don’t want to risk the baby,” she said.

Sarco left her warehouse job to care for Anthony, now five months, and her 10-year-old Angel. Her husband still works as a store manager. On a sunny April afternoon, Sarco and her boys stopped by Angel’s school, Cicero West Elementary, to pick up some food from its Healthy Student Market. In partnership with the Food Depository, the school-run program provides free groceries, including fresh fruits and vegetables, to families.

Anabel Sarco and her songs, Anthony and Angel

Anabel Sarco and her sons, Anthony (center) and Angel. (Photos by Mateo Zapata for the Food Depository).

“It’s good because you’re saving a little extra money to pay bills, now that I’m not working,” she said.

Sarco’s is one of the approximately 60 to 80 families who visit Cicero West and East schools’ joint Healthy Student Market, held twice a month. Like many schools across Cook County, Cicero had to put the program on hold from March until fall 2020 as the school navigated the transition to e-learning.

“It’s great to know that we can still do it,” said Cicero West Principal Veronica Morales. “When the world shut down, it was killing me that we couldn’t do it. The first opportunity they reached out to us again, (Cicero East Principal Jill Miller) and I were like, ‘Let’s do this.’”

(From left) Cicero West Assistant Principal Alejandra Reyes, Principal Veronica Morales, and Cicero East Principal Jill Miller. Together, the three run the Cicero West/East joint Healthy Student Market.

(From left) Cicero West Assistant Principal Alejandra Reyes, Principal Veronica Morales, and Cicero East Principal Jill Miller. Together, the three run the Cicero West/East joint Healthy Student Market.

Since then, they’ve adapted a modified distribution model. Instead of parents coming into the facility and making selections from tables of groceries, they now pick up pre-packed bags and boxes from one of the school’s side doors.

The markets are just one of several food assistance programs that the Cicero School District 99 has continued or started during the pandemic to meet the need among district families, which was already great before the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“It’s important – now more than ever,” Morales said.

‘Now more than ever’

In addition to the markets, district staff have also organized regular breakfast and lunch pickups at 16 of the district’s school sites, a bimonthly mobile food pantry, and benefits outreach to connect to parents to needed services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“Food is comfort,” said Jan Wolff, Cicero School District’s food service director, who has overseen the breakfast and lunch pickups since the school shifted to e-learning in March 2020. “And in this pandemic, we’ve all needed some kind of comfort.”

The free food is also a necessity for many of the school district’s families who were hit hard by the local business closures and layoffs. The district, which enrolls approximately 11,000 students, is a part of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision – a program that allows districts serving low-income areas to offer breakfast and lunch at no cost to students. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 90% of the district’s students participated in the free lunch program, Wolff said.

Principal Miller, who helps oversee the Cicero West/East Healthy Student Market, has also heard of the need from her own students.

“When students start exiting the (all-school morning Zoom) meeting to go to class, there will be some students that stay on and ask, ‘Do you know what they’re getting this week? We have nothing in the cabinet.’”  Miller explained. “They’re counting on this food.”

In the early months of the pandemic, Wolff’s breakfast and lunch distributions – which take place twice a week – were serving between 8,000 to 9,000 meals per distribution. Nowadays, they serve closer to 2,500 meals every Monday and Wednesday. The most significant drop in pick-ups came in April after parents received their benefits from Pandemic-EBT, a federal program to financially support families whose kids would have otherwise received free meals at school.

Cicero staff at a breakfast and lunch distribution.

For the past year, staff at the Cicero School District have distributed free breakfasts and lunches for students. (Photo courtesy Jan Wolff)

But a year in, many parents are still regularly turning to Cicero’s food programs for support. Staff have also found other ways to get food to families,  such as arranging home drop-offs to parents who could not leave their homes.

“We just want to ease that fear among our community members,” Wolff said. “We just want to be something stable that they can count on.”

Being ‘the seed’

Reflecting on what this past year has felt like for her and her family, Leticia Carmona described it as an “equation of cinematic arts.”

“‘50 First Dates,’ plus ‘Groundhog Day,’ multiplied by a terrible episode of the ‘Twilight Zone,’’ she said with a laugh.

A sense of humor, she said, has helped her and her family get through the highs and the lows of the pandemic. Carmona, 43, is a mother of four, ranging in ages from 10 to 17. Her youngest is a fourth grader at Cicero East.

Leticia Carmona and her sons, Sergio (left) and Carlos (right)

Leticia Carmona and her sons, Sergio (left) and Carlos (right).

It was her first time at the school’s Healthy Student Market, though her husband had been before to pick up groceries for the family. Luckily, they both have been able to continue working throughout the pandemic, Carmona said, but the program helps with budgeting for nutritious groceries, especially for a big family.

The Cicero mother said she was reminded of some of the early lessons that kids learn in school about life cycles and how plants grow.

“They’re being that seed,” she said of the school. “They’re being that community support. They’re here like a tree to give you shelter, to give you shade when needed.”

Learn more about Healthy Student Markets and the Food Depository’s other children’s and school-based programs