Hunger in our community is changing. Find out how we are responding through facility upgrades and expanded services.
Nourish Project: Common Questions
In 2019, the Greater Chicago Food Depository completed Phase I of the Nourish Project. The first phase focused on upgrades to our warehouse, including an expansion of cold storage, renovations to our shipping area and new spaces for our volunteer program. These renovations have proved crucial during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as demand for food assistance soared to record levels. In response to the crisis, we were able to distribute more food than any point in our 43-year history while continuing to engage 11,000 annual volunteers.
Phase II of the Nourish Project is focused on expanding our capacity to prepare, source, and distribute healthy pre-packaged meals that meet the dietary needs of our most at-risk neighbors. Originally slated to begin in the summer of 2020, Phase II was paused for two years as the COVID-19 crisis required our full attention.
In 2022, the Food Depository plans to move forward with Phase II. We plan to break ground on a 36,700 square-foot facility expansion that includes a commercial kitchen for meal preparation and packaging, a demonstration kitchen for nutrition education, and an expansion of parking for volunteers, guests, and our fleet. At the same time, we are building the community partnerships needed to connect individuals and families with nutritious prepared meals.
We anticipate our new prepared meal kitchen will be open and fully operational in late 2023.
We have a unique opportunity to make meaningful progress toward ending hunger. Returning to pre-pandemic levels of hunger isn’t our goal. Ending hunger is our goal. Our plans for growth are driven by rigorous strategic planning toward building a stronger, more resilient, and more equitable emergency food system.
The need for prepared meals is projected to increase dramatically with the growth in the older adult population. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the number of older adults living on fixed incomes, and facing mobility and health challenges, is expected to significantly increase. Simply put, it’s difficult for many older adults and people with disabilities to leave their homes to acquire food and prepare their own meals. By creating and providing healthy meals tailored to the needs of high-risk groups, the Food Depository will contribute to breaking the cycle of food insecurity and chronic disease, specifically for high need, high-cost patients.
At the same time, COVID-19 underscored the health and economic disparities that Communities of Color face. Even after the public health threat of the pandemic eases, the economic recovery will be slow and uneven. Similar to past recessions, national data shows that workers of color not only have faced disproportionate job loss but will have slower recoveries compared to White workers. The Nourish Project will be a catalyst for community economic sustainability: we will expand our direct investments in community organizations by funding meal preparation capacity, creating new job opportunities.
Our commitment to our core goals is unchanged. However, the pause provided an opportunity to strengthen and refine our vision. In our current facility, we’ve recently scaled up to produce 600 meals/day from scratch. We’ve expanded our team of chefs, dietitians, and food safety experts. We’ve improved our ability to prepare meals for older adults and medically tailored meals. We’ve learned more about how we can convene and collaborate with other local organizations that produce meals.
Drawing on our research on Chicago’s most vulnerable populations, including older adults, people with disabilities, and youth, the Food Depository is launching a bold effort that aims to provide millions of prepared meals per year. Our Nourish campaign strives to meet the needs of these target populations, who have experienced unique barriers to food access during the pandemic, now and in the future.
We plan to break ground in 2022 on a 36,700 square-foot facility expansion that will include a commercial kitchen for preparing and packaging meals, a demonstration kitchen for nutrition education, and an expansion of parking for volunteers, guests, and our fleet. The new facilities will be constructed to the immediate west of our warehouse and offices on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
The new prepared meals kitchen is a key component of a larger strategy to connect priority populations with nourishing meals. We aim to prepare 2.5 million healthy meals per year, tailored to the individual needs of older adults, people with disabilities, and patients with chronic health conditions, and deliver up to 7 days a week. Initially, this strategy is focused on older adults and people in need of medically tailored meals. Expansion plans include preparing and procuring meals for opportunity youth, justice involved individuals, and other groups at elevated risk of hunger.
We also will invest directly in local Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-led providers and community-based organizations to source nutritious prepared meals like those we produce. These vendors will include those serving opportunity youth ages 16-24, participants in workforce development programs, people experiencing a housing crisis, or pantry clients. This investment enables these organizations to provide jobs, support hyper-local economies, and offer food security to families in need. Our strategy will shift power and build assets in BIPOC communities, while ensuring more meals are available for our at-risk neighbors.
For decades, the Food Depository has served Communities of Color that endure higher levels of poverty and food insecurity, making investments in our partners with funding for immediate need grants, cold storage systems, technology infrastructure and free food. We have accelerated these strategies during the pandemic to be more equity-based, as Communities of Color have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. Even before our new prepared meal facility is up and running, our strategy has evolved to include direct investments in our front-line community partners – $10 million so far, with a priority on those serving Black and Latino communities on the South and West Sides.
Our approach initially focuses on 40 priority, under-invested communities that are projected to have increased need for access to food, involvement with benefits outreach and advocacy, and includes the following short- and long-term strategies: Distributing equity grants to current partners in Black and Latino communities; investing in new community partners through grant support; and, capacity building assistance to current pantry partners to improve operational hours, expand storage capacity, and support their expanding delivery programs.
The Food Depository plans to purchase meals from local, minority and women-owned businesses, and community organizations. A priority will be placed on partnerships with BIPOC-led enterprises that can lead to jobs, training, and economic opportunity in priority communities.
The Food Depository is currently preparing and delivering 600 complex, scratch-made meals per day, and we expect to reach 1,200 meals per day by Summer 2022. As we expand our production capabilities with a new prepared meals kitchen, our distribution strategy will remain the same as we ramp up to 10,000 meals per day. These meals are delivered to health care partners, food pantry partners, and programs that target specific populations, such as opportunity youth (ages 16-24 who are neither enrolled in school or work), people experiencing a housing crisis, and individuals enrolled in workforce development programs. We will continue to expand pilot meal delivery programs over the next year.
A hunger crisis persisted in Chicago and Cook County before COVID-19, particularly in Communities of Color. Returning to pre-pandemic levels of hunger isn’t our goal. Ending hunger is our goal. Our vision is to transform the emergency food system while we grow the capacity of our partner network to ensure there is always food available for any person or household in need. Our plans for growth are driven by rigorous strategic planning toward building a stronger, more resilient, and more equitable emergency food system. Together, we can nourish a healthier and more hopeful community.
The Nourish Project is driven by a $75 million capital campaign to fund crucial facility upgrades and programmatic expansion. The cost of Phase I was $22 million. Phase II is estimated to cost approximately $53 million, which will fund the 36,700 square-foot facility expansion, exterior site work, and the growth of prepared meal programs.
On our current timeline, we plan to have the new kitchen fully operational in late 2023.