Meet Monica Moss, a passionate food justice advocate who now leads the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s board of directors.Growing up in Virginia, Moss recalls family meals with seafood straight from the fishing boats, kale and peas from the garden, and fresh eggs from the chickens. The conversation was warm and nurturing; the food was bountiful. Moss wants that for everyone. At a time of immense hunger and political division, she envisions a table large enough for all. “I just fundamentally believe that about life: It’s meant to be shared,” said Moss, who was appointed to chair the Food Depository’s board of directors on July 1. “And it breaks my heart to think that there are people who can’t provide that in their households. I’m passionate about helping people have access.” The daughter of a NASA engineer and an educator, Moss’s most vivid childhood memories revolve around food, faith and the pursuit of space exploration. She attended Spelman College, a renowned historically Black college for women in Atlanta, Georgia, on a scholarship for women in science and engineering. During freshman week, she met a young man named Otis, who was attending Morehouse College. “So, that was interesting,” she said, laughing. They’ve been together ever since, married for nearly 27 years with two children, Elijah, 20 and Makayla, 17. Today, Moss is the first lady and her husband, the Rev. Otis Moss III, is the pastor at the historic Trinity United Church of Christ in Washington Heights on Chicago’s South Side. In May, during the height of the pandemic, Trinity partnered with the Food Depository to host an emergency pop-up food distribution that served more than 1,000 families each week. Moss is excited for the new food pantry opening through the Endeleo Institute, the community development arm of Trinity church that aims to rejuvenate the 95th Street corridor in Washington Heights. The following conversation took place just days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you feeling right now?It’s painfully unsettling. And I don’t quite know what we do with it. People keep talking about how we have to get back – I don’t think we need to get back, I think we need to go forward. And when I hear people say, this isn’t who we are as a nation, I say yes, it is who we are as a nation. It was just a very painful day to me. And it still is.
What calls you to this mission of ending hunger?Food is fundamental. Everybody needs food. What I think is unique about the Food Depository is we don’t just give food. We try to give people healthy, delicious, nutritious food. There’s so much that transpires around cooking food, preparing food and, of course, consuming food together. I was the beneficiary of that. Sitting down at the table with family, having discussions and learning and listening and being nosy as a kid. That’s a huge part of what kind of defines my life now, the idea of coming together and sharing a meal.
Throughout our network, the pandemic has caused an unprecedented surge in need, which is still ongoing. What has that looked like from your perspective in Washington Heights?I can’t say enough about the Food Depository’s response, the way we were able to very quickly realize that we were going to have to be very innovative in our approach. I think having the pop-up food distributions was brilliant. It helped us to not have the miles-long lines that we saw in other communities across the nation. Washington Heights is an interesting community. It has quite a few senior citizens. There’s a lot of caretaking that happens among families. People are looking in on those elderly relatives. There’s a lot of home ownership in the community, but there’s also a lot of poverty. What we see is a continual need and a growing need. That’s why we’re really excited that we’re going to establish a permanent pantry, so we can respond not only to the immediate food needs, but also provide benefits enrollment, cooking classes and food education. And also just to have a meeting space – people need to have a place where they can connect.
In the past couple of years, racial equity has become integral to our mission. Why do you feel it’s important for a food bank to focus on racial equity?Especially in a big segregated city like Chicago, we know that the majority of people that we serve are Black and Brown people. We know that. It only makes sense that if we’re truly going to be invested in talking about racial equity, we also have to deal with the root causes of poverty that lead to hunger. I don’t see a way around it. The only way we can do this work is to address racial equity and to stretch ourselves so we can serve our clients and our partners better. So we’re doing it in a way that’s empowering and not disempowering. So we’re saying that we value you for who you are and for your contributions to your community. We see you for who you are and we don’t see you as a deficit. We see you as having your own solutions and your own point of view that’s very, very valuable. It’s everything from who we hire as contractors for the organization to how we talk to people when we’re giving them food. It’s being sensitive to the needs of people. Now we’re looking at communities and saying, let’s see if we’re able to invest in your community, how your community can respond to your own needs.
What you’re describing feels like a notable shift for the organization, from more of a transaction model of distribution to more of a partnership model. Is that how you see it?Definitely. I also see us going from a food bank that delivers food to a social justice organization. We’re looking at root causes and how can we effectively respond to them. When we were doing the pop-up at our church, I couldn’t believe it. People showed up from around the city to help distribute that food. They came in all different colors and shapes, and we were cooperatively working together. What we’re seeing at the Food Depository is exactly the same.
It’s not about just giving someone a bag of pinto beans. It’s about truly investing in one another and looking at it through the lens of social justice and equity.
What gives you hope at this moment in time, given all the national turmoil and the seemingly intractable challenges here in Chicago?That’s a hard question this week. But in reference to the Food Depository, I’m very hopeful because I think we’re seeing something special transpire at the Food Depository as we are looking at how we’re responding to need. We are having to push ourselves to become more than we ever imagined that we could. We truly have become more than a food bank. We’re helping to empower communities. And I think that’s huge. What gives me hope is that most people are good, most people are reasonable, most people want the same things. They want safety. They need resources. I don’t think what happened in the nation’s capital is reflective of the vast majority of American people. But you know, I come from a history and a heritage of people who’ve always made something out of nothing. We’ve always had struggles in this nation. It’s never been perfect. There’s always been a group of people, primarily African-American people, who have had to struggle in a different way. And so, I have seen so much beauty come out of that. I’ve seen so much strength and power come from that. That’s kind of the narrative that I carry with me.
This is just a time. It’s not the end of anything. And it really can become the beginning of something if we’re smart enough and compassionate enough as people.