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Combatting Food Insecurity

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From Our Neighborhood News, Fall 2020

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the Northwestern community has stepped up to help Evanston address the food needs of residents facing economic hardship.

Northwestern professor Karen Smilowitz and a group of students are assisting the city's food-resource task force to create a digital map of where food insecurity exists across Evanston. The team of graduate student interns, in place before the pandemic, pivoted to address concerns resulting from stay-at-home orders and rising unemployment. 

In April, Northwestern partnered with the city to launch an emergency food pantry, which initially distributed around 500 boxes of food per week. But as other benefits-like federal nutrition assistance and unemployment pay-kicked in, fewer people visited the pantry. While there's still a need for that type of service, Evanston community services manager Audrey Thompson says the city also wants to capitalize on its other resources. 

"What we've recognized with the help of the [team's map] is that even though the city is resource-rich, we still have a problem with collaboration and making sure everyone knows about the resources," she says. "Now everyone is able to see, by address, how close food really is to them."

The team plans to add the map to the Evanston Care Network's website, where "housing" is the number one search and "food" is second. In addition to showing food availability (such as hot meals, produce, and soup kitchens that deliver), the map also helps food providers better identify residents in need of assistance. 

"When you have your head down and you're just working, you don't know there's another provider three blocks from you," Thompson says, noting that the map allows a provider who's out of food to suggest checking in at nearby providers.

The Northwestern graduate students provided a needed benefit in pulling together disparate data and putting it in one place, she adds. "We had fliers, but it's helpful to actually see on the map where food exists. The technology they created really helps us see where we need to beef up providers." 

Food insecurity doesn't just mean that people don't have food, Thompson says. "We look at how far you have to travel for food that's healthy. Just because there's a McDonald's in your neighborhood doesn't mean your neighborhood isn't food insecure.

"The research tells us we have to do a better job divvying up the resources all across Evanston. We do a good job, but the map identified where we can do better."

TO LEARN MORE, email Audrey Thompson at athompson@cityofevanston.org.