Bessie Faust, 65, and Louise Wilson, 85, are pushing two grocery carts overflowing with bags of produce down the hallway of the Judge Green Apartments, a senior housing high-rise in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood.
They stop at a door, where Faust knocks and calls out, “Frank? It’s Bessie, baby. You want some produce?”
Frank Williamson, 74, opens his door and accepts two bags full of oranges, onions, mangoes, potatoes, apples and carrots, this month’s selection of fresh produce from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Judge Green Apartments, which is run by the Chicago Housing Authority, is one of 100 low-income senior housing buildings where the Food Depository distributes produce monthly.
“This means I eat,” says Williamson, 74, setting down the bags of produce in his studio apartment. His Social Security benefits only cover his “bare bones necessities,” he says, and the current high cost of food makes affording groceries even more difficult. “This is how I’m dealing with it,” he says, pointing to one of the bags of produce and noting his deep gratitude.
“These food deliveries show me that people still care.”
A Two-Fold Need
In addition to the monthly produce deliveries, Judge Green is also one of about 150 low-income senior apartment buildings throughout Chicago where the Food Depository delivers monthly Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) boxes full of shelf-stable foods, such as pasta or rice, canned vegetables and fruit, peanut butter, oatmeal or other cereal, dry milk and canned meat.
The CSFP boxes are provided by the USDA to seniors 60 and older who meet certain income requirements. The Food Depository distributes 6,000 of the boxes monthly to qualifying older adults through senior apartments, including Judge Green, and select food pantries throughout the city.
Larona “Ronnie” Carter, the resident service coordinator at Judge Green, explained that both the CSFP boxes and the produce deliveries help meet a two-fold need for most residents: food that’s affordable and accessible.
Most of the roughly 130 residents at Judge Green are on a fixed income and have little left with which to buy food after paying their bills. The older adults who do have the resources to buy groceries often face accessibility issues, with the nearest grocery store almost a mile away, no easy trek for those using a walker or wheelchair. Those who take a bus are limited to buying only what they can carry.
These challenges are part of the reason 8% of the older adult population (those 60 and over) throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs are food insecure, according to Feeding America’s 2023 State of Senior Hunger report. This local figure is higher than the national rate of 7.1% and climbs higher still in communities of color.
The free food delivered right to the Judge Green residents’ doors addresses both hurdles, and ensures the residents have enough nutritious food to maintain a healthy diet.
Ken Allen, 67, an Air Force Veteran, was especially grateful for the food deliveries when he had hip surgery in 2022. “The food deliveries are very, very helpful,” he said, adding that when he was recovering, he couldn’t get out to buy groceries.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve counted on this food because I couldn’t get out, especially in the winter,” he said. “I can’t put into words how grateful I am.”
Boxes of Hope
Across the city, in Logan Square, Valerie Miles, 63, visited the Chicago Hope pantry to pick up CSFP boxes for herself and her 85-year-old mom. The two women live together, doing what they can to make ends meet on their Social Security benefits. Miles said they don’t buy many groceries.
“Just the basics. No canned goods. They’re too expensive,” she said, adding they also often go without meat. “This helps me stock my cabinets,” Miles said, her hand on a food box. “And it allows us to eat healthier. It makes a big difference.”
Chicago Hope pantry distributes the boxes on Friday mornings, a supplement to their regular food pantry distributions on Mondays and Thursdays.
“We’re all blessed that we’re able to manage on our own and are glad to do this little part for those who need some help,” said pantry manager Maggie Jordan, 71, adding that she and her volunteers are all older adults themselves.
Food and Fellowship
On this day, one of the first guests through the door was picking up boxes for her grandparents, who were at home sick in bed. “They depend on this food,” the guest said.
Jordan sees many proxies picking up boxes for people who can’t come themselves. This usually accounts for their guests 70 and older.
Carmen Perez, 71, came to pick up food boxes for herself and her sister Jana, 82, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.
“Everything is so expensive,” Perez said. “And it’ll cost more tomorrow.” She doesn’t buy canned goods anymore because they are too expensive. The CSFP box makes a big difference, she said, adding that her favorite in the box is cereal.
For those who can collect the box themselves, Jordan realizes that food often isn’t their only need.
“There are two needs served here: a food need and a social need,” she said.
She added that the seniors who live alone can feel isolated and many don’t have family living nearby. “In the summer months, some of the seniors will sit outside and play cards or just chat.” Jordan joins them when she can. “They come for something and go home with more. That’s how it should be.”