Field Site Spotlight: Chicago, Illinois

Maria Cristina Chicuén, Laura YepezEmerson, Field

With a population of just over 2.7 Million, Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States—and with a food insecurity rate of 12%, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap survey, Cook County, IL has a higher number of food-insecure residents than the total population of the state of Vermont. In this field site spotlight we visit with Laura and María Cristina, two Emerson Hunger Fellows serving with La Casa Norte and the Illinois Hunger Coalition.

Hunger Fellows María Cristina Chicuén and Laura Yepez
at the end of field training, August 2017.

María Cristina Chicuén

A close friend of mine likes to say that he “speaks things into existence” whenever he is hoping for good fortune. It would be apt to assume that my placement in Chicago was both parts serendipitous and spoken-into-existence-esque. Here’s why:

I remember waiting for my Sociology class to begin when I learned about my field placement at the Illinois Hunger Coalition. You see, during my last quarter at Stanford, I was enrolled in a course that focused on the Urban Underclass. It was here that I was introduced to topics in urban sociology, reading extensively about residential segregation, the racial wealth gap, and the cyclical nature of neighborhood disinvestment and its effects on education, employment, and general communal well-being. Chicago was the backdrop of most, if not all, discussions, in part because the city served as my professor’s doctoral journey at the Chicago School, but mostly due to its rich, complicated history. Regardless of which stars aligned to expose me to Chicago’s past, I was grateful for the present opportunity to work, learn, and grow in this city.

At the Illinois Hunger Coalition, my project has focused on researching and evaluating best practices and takeaways from the SNAP Employment & Training (E&T) program. Originally established by the Food Security Act of 1985 and reinforced by the Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1997, SNAP E&T was designed to engage able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) in work-related activities in order to be eligible for public benefits. For those that did not comply with the work requirements, SNAP benefits were cut off after three months even if recipients were searching for and willing to participate in a training program. Although it’s been over thirty years since the program’s implementation, this effort has been largely unsuccessful in achieving its touted goal of self-sufficiency.

My conversations with service providers in Cook County have highlighted the foundational issues barring E&T programs from being useful for participants. For one, there is limited evidence to suggest that policies pushing for work requirements will secure jobs for job-seekers or lift them out of poverty. In fact, a significant portion of individuals subject to work requirements continued to be poor, and some became even poorer after the fact. Moreover, workforce programs have been historically designed as a one-size-fits-all solution, pigeonholing participants into an array of employment sectors that are not just at odds with their skillsets, but also the most vulnerable to automation and globalization, rendering participants obsolete in the job market once again. Additionally, the majority of participants in these programs have limited access to transportation, are functionally illiterate, and are returning citizens with felony convictions. These barriers and traumatic life experiences further complicate their ability to attain long-term employment and reach the elusive state of self-sufficiency.

I decided that my time as a fellow in Chicago would be dedicated to researching human-centered design solutions and fostering public-private partnerships to strengthen the foundation of SNAP E&T for participants. This meant that instead of primarily focusing on jobs, the focal point would turn to improving the needs of the people. I have greatly enjoyed discussing ways to enact this change with individuals working for private foundations, the State’s health and human services department, and human-centered design consultants to brainstorm how the system can be changed to improve the experiences of beneficiaries. I am currently working to incorporate the grievances, needs, and recommendations of beneficiaries into the greater conversation of how to best redesign SNAP E&T given that their voices should be at the forefront of the discussion. While this has been no easy task, it has been rewarding to work hand-in-hand with multiple stakeholders in this matter as we seek to improve a systemic issue by starting at the root of the problem instead of simply brushing over the surface. Although my time at the Illinois Hunger Coalition is coming to an end soon, I hope my work helps highlight the need to critically evaluate policy, especially policy that does not reflect the needs of the current period we live in. Revisiting policy that was drafted over thirty years ago and making the necessary adjustments to account for changes in employment, wages, educational attainment, and, above all, human needs, will hopefully pave the way towards a system that is more equitable and just.

Hunger Fellows María Cristina Chicuén and Laura Yepez
participate in the 32nd Annual Hunger Walk to benefit the
Chicago Food Depository in fall 2017

Laura Yepez

My field site placement is with La Casa Norte (LCN), an organization that understands that poverty is the root cause of homelessness and hunger and provides a client-centered approach to combat poverty. La Casa Norte was founded in 2002 to provide services to populations experiencing homelessness, particularly for youth ages 16-21. LCN started operations out of a small storefront on North Avenue with only two employees. Since then, they have grown and expanded their efforts to provide housing and wrap-around services for youth and families in the Humboldt Park area. Wraparound services allows social service providers to address all aspects of a client’s life; this approach reinforces their natural support system while offering other services like therapy. LCN’s various programs offer intentional, trauma-informed harm-reduction care, and LCN prides itself in seeing clients in a holistic view, as people who are resilient despite the challenges and crises they face.

La Casa Norte is currently constructing a new home for their services: The Foundation Project—Pierce House. LCN is currently in the process of building a $20 million dollar center which will offer 25-units of supportive housing, a drop-in center, a health center, a technology center, job readiness training, a nutrition center, and a food pantry for youth and families who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. I am currently researching different models for programs that can be implemented within the Foundation Project’s Nutrition Center, including a food pantry, hot meal program, instructional kitchen, and community café, and the ways that these spaces would interact with other services in the building.

I am also working on a Community Hunger Assessment of the Northwest side, which focuses primarily on the emergency food system and how the members of the community interact with the free food programs in our area. This assessment will give LCN a localized snapshot of the services and use of programs in the area, and will also inform the structure of LCN’s own free food programming. Along with this, I am also part of the Community Referral team, which visits local food pantries in our network to provide resources to community members. Through the Northwest Food Partners’ Network we are able to provide these services to our partners to help alleviate their volume of clients in need and foster self-sufficiency for the clients who frequent food pantries. While staff operate the food pantry, we help their clients find resources for their non-food needs. As we are in a part of the city that is threatened by gentrification, the most frequently asked question is for a list of low-income housing options.

One of the most interesting aspects of being an Emerson National Hunger Fellow is being a new, fresh mind in an already-established organization and community. We learn through our field work and bring innovative ideas to help address issues in the community. I learn best through interactions with community members at events, at pantries, and even at bus stops to help understand in full the issues in the community. I have thoroughly enjoyed being in the Humboldt Park area and the surrounding communities. The best conversations I’ve had are with the older folk in the area, who have seen the changes in the neighborhood and have a living recollection of recent Chicago history.

I studied Landscape Architecture in college, where I learned how Chicago’s park system was designed to connect parks together through boulevards on the West and South Side of Chicago. I learned about how the World’s Fair of 1893 had inspired many, but also showcased grime infested slums in the city, leaving city officials determined to cleanse the city. Never did I think when moving to Chicago that I would be able to see the effects of centuries-old policies. Just by looking at the racial makeup of Chicago you can see a segregation of races, particularly in the South Side, which is heightened by other factors including migration patterns, the transportation system, and most recently gentrification in the city. What is most notable about Chicagoans is their pride in their city: even with their acknowledgement of corruption, rampant gentrification, and historical discrimination, they continue to be proud of the city. Chicagoans are right to feel proud, for despite its flaws Chicago is a grand, historic American city with much potential still left. Frank Lloyd Wright once said “Eventually, I think Chicago will the most beautiful great city left in the world,” and after living here these past few months, I believe him.

I am earnestly enjoying living in Chicago. To be able to see the incredible architecture in the birthplace of the skyscraper, or the vast amount of open green spaces in a city that was intended to be a garden city, and to learn about life from the people in each unique neighborhood is a real privilege. I especially like the excellent transportation system, the CTA, which is a great network of buses and the “L” railway line which can get you just about anywhere in the city. Although I have had trouble adjusting to the cold, I’ve already learned the tricks of layers, long underpants, and warm socks. The temperature continues to drop and I continue to layer on clothes, explore the city, and talk to Chicago folks.

About the Authors

Chicuén headshot

Maria Cristina Chicuén

Emerson Fellow

Born in Havana, Cuba, María Cristina was raised in Miami, FL, and graduated from Stanford University in 2017 with a B.A. in Human Biology and a concentration in Sustainable Food System Development. While at Stanford, she centered her studies on obesity prevention, food waste reduction, and health policy, working closely with minority communities in East Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Miami. As a sophomore, María Cristina worked with the Stanford Prevention Research Center as a Nutrition Interventionist, helping implement a community-based trial to promote wellness in Latino neighborhoods. After receiving a grant from the Haas Center for Public Service, María Cristina interned with the Urban Oasis Project in Miami, where she worked to promote and increase low-income communities’ usage of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at farmers markets. As a senior, she worked as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (TA) in Health Care in America: An Introduction to U.S. Health Policy, where she led weekly discussion sections for undergraduates on topics focusing on the Affordable Care Act. Maria Cristina also worked closely with Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design on projects related to food waste, sustainable agriculture, urban development, and civic engagement. As an Emerson Fellow, her hope is to become a champion of minority empowerment, social entrepreneurship, and anti-discrimination.

Yepez-Zavala headshot

Laura Yepez

Emerson Fellow

Laura was born and raised in East Los Angeles. At the University of California, Berkeley, Laura majored in American Studies, an interdisciplinary major which allowed her to learn about communities, policy, and planning. Laura also has a minor in Landscape Architecture. While at Berkeley, Laura fundraised for several organizations and became the Fundraising Manager for Youth Spirit Artworks, a non-profit that serves homeless youth in South Berkeley. She was also part of Oakland Unified School District’s Rethinking School Lunch Initiative, which revolutionized school lunches for all of Oakland’s schools. After she graduated from Berkeley, Laura was active with the 2016 election and joined an urban-planning firm called MIG.

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