“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

As Dr. Nicole Scott was deciding on a name for her food pantry, that Bible verse – John 8:36 – spoke to her.

“That’s really what I want to be able to do, is liberate people from food insecurity,” Scott said.

This fall, the Free-N-Deed Market opened in south suburban Dolton, funded by a Food Depository equity grant distributed earlier this year. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food Depository has distributed $9 million to strengthen the emergency food system in low-income, predominantly Black and Latino communities. These communities have been disproportionately affected by food insecurity and poverty, both before and during the pandemic.

Free-N-Deed is the second of four new food pantries set to open across Cook County as a result of this grant funding. Each new site will be located in a high-priority community in the city’s South and West Sides and south suburbs.

Inspired by experience

For Scott, who’s made it her life’s mission to serve families in the south suburbs, the pantry’s debut represents a dream two decades in the making.

“I was just really excited and glad; humble and grateful,” she recalled of her feelings on the pantry’s opening day in late September. “Because that was me. That was me years ago.”

Scott is the founder of the nearby American Association of Single Parents, a social service organization supporting one-parent households since 2001. All of her work is inspired by her experience raising her son on her own. Despite working full time, Scott struggled to put food on the table – a struggle shared by many of the parents she currently serves.

Dr. Nicole Scott, founder and coordinator of the Free-N-Deed Market food pantry in Dolton.

Dr. Nicole Scott, founder and coordinator of the Free-N-Deed Market food pantry in Dolton.

“I often say that sometimes your misery is your ministry, because out of those life experiences you want to help others who may be experiencing the same things,” she said.

Before, she would host monthly food distributions for the families in her program. But now, with the full pantry, she can feed anyone who comes through her doors – not just single parents.

Open three days a week, Scott hopes to eventually serve up to 50 households a day with what she describes as a grocery shopping experience. With a shopping cart and help from a volunteer, guests are able to make their own selections from the aisles of produce, meat, dairy, dry and frozen goods and donated home goods. The site also includes an indoor waiting area and a classroom where Scott plans to host nutrition and financial literacy classes.

‘I’m just thankful’

“Here, you can pick what you want,” said Phricette Powell, 55, while Free-N-Deed volunteers filled her car with the groceries. “It’s a blessing. Helps you save a little money – helps save everything.”

The Calumet City resident helps the American Association of Single Parents, driving the bus for Scott’s after-school program. She also receives SNAP benefits, but the monthly allotment doesn’t cover everything. She likes to cook fresh dishes at home, like chicken and noodles and dumplings, so she was excited for the pantry’s array of meat and produce options.

“This will hold me for a while,” she said. “God is good. I’m just thankful.”

Volunteer Niya Scott helps pick out groceries for a guest at the Free-N-Deed Market.

Volunteer Niya Scott helps pick out groceries for a guest at the Free-N-Deed Market.

It’s been a trying two years for Emmett Cobb. After living in Kankakee for 45 years, the 68-year-old retired state worker moved back to the Chicagoland area in 2019 to be closer to family after dealing with health and other personal struggles. Then, his mother died  in March 2020, followed by his younger sister in November the same year.

But, as Cobb said, it’s like the old saying goes: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Volunteer Emmett Cobb poses for a photo in the Free-N-Deed food pantry

Volunteer Emmett Cobb

“Life goes on,” he said. “I went through some dark moments, but when you face adversity, you’ve got to live or what are you going to do? I’m not ready to give up.”

Before his sister’s passing, she ran a church food pantry not far from where Free-N-Deed currently stands. Cobb helped there after coming back to town. When he heard about Scott’s new site, he was eager to get involved as a volunteer, putting his experience and knowledge of the community to good use.

“It means everything because, especially during this pandemic, there’s a lot of people who need help,” he said. “I like the fact that I can help people.”

First and foremost, Scott’s priority is to serve every person with dignity. She doesn’t want anyone to feel the stigma or shame many associate with food assistance.

Her hope is to change that narrative.

“It’s not, ‘I need to go to the pantry,’” Scott explained. “But instead, ‘I go over to the market and get my fresh produce – and I don’t pay anything for it.’”