Ahmad Jitan, a community organizer for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), helps a man select groceries at IMAN’s new Food and Wellness Center. Credit: Kenneth Johnson/Greater Chicago Food Depository

ENGLEWOOD — In the heart of Englewood, free, fresh groceries are now one push of a cart away. 

The IMAN Food and Wellness Center, 1216 W. 63rd St., a food pantry created by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, is open and ready to serve the community. 

Residents can stop by the pantry 10 a.m.-noon Tuesdays, 4-6 p.m. Thursdays and 9-11 a.m. Saturdays. Shoppers can stroll through the pantry for essentials ranging from fresh vegetables and meats to dish soap and face masks. 

The pantry was made possible through a grant from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. In February, the depository awarded 26 grants totaling $2.6 million. Four grants went to community-based organizers to create food pantries, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network among them.

Amy Laboy, senior director of programs at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the Inner-City Muslim Action Network was chosen because of its work to improve the community. 

“What was critical [when awarding the grants] was that the partners were trusted, embedded, and robust community or faith-based organizations,” Laboy said.  “We identified potential partners like IMAN because they could create an experience for the community with the community’s voice in mind.”

IMAN’s new Food and Wellness Center near 63rd and Racine in Englewood in operation on June 18, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘We’re Still Very Much In A Crisis’

Food insecurity is a national health crisis that has perpetually plagued communities that face federal and local disinvestment. According to a recent study, the pandemic escalated the issue nationally and locally

Chicago has the fourth-highest number of people and the third-highest number of children living in very low food secure households. An estimated 212,300 people and 209,120 children are expected to live without food security in 2021. In 2020, those numbers were even higher:  262,320 and 232,500, respectively. 

Nationally, communities of color are the most vulnerable. According to the same study, one in five Black individuals, one in six Latino individuals and one in four Indigenous individuals experienced food insecurity in 2019. 

Greg Trotter, associate director of communications at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the unsettling number of people without food during the pandemic made it clear to the organization it was time to step up its game. 

“Many of the Black and Latino communities on the South and West [sides] that were hit hardest by COVID-19 are the same that had been hit hardest by the rise in food insecurity and have suffered for years from disinvestment and systemic racism,” Trotter said. “There was sort of a realization as an organization that, yes, we’ve served these communities for years, but we have to do more.”

One solution was to partner with organizations that are “trusted and respected” in affected communities, Trotter said.

“They know the needs of the community,” Trotter said. “They know the people walking through the doors better than we could. Being able to partner with them and expand food access in that way, it provides a feeling of hope and optimism at this point in the crisis.”

Trotter said by working with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and other community organizations, organizers hope to minimize the devastating effects of the pandemic while strengthening community bonds. 

“We’re still very much in a crisis,” Trotter said. “And I know everything feels like it’s getting better and people are vaccinated. That’s all wonderful. But really, there was a hunger crisis in Chicago even before the pandemic.

“These same neighborhoods will be among the slowest to rebound during the economic recovery. They’re going to need our sustained support and compassion.”

Jamil Wright, manager of the IMAN Food and Wellness Center, helps a woman with her groceries. Credit: Kenneth Johnson/Greater Chicago Food Depository

‘Creating Something That’s Sustainable’

Ahmad Jitan, community organizer at Inner-City Muslim Action Network, said the organization was initially hesitant about opening a food pantry. 

“The way towards change isn’t just having handouts,” Jitan said. “Eventually, we want people to be able to support a thriving economy, provide jobs and create grocery stores that are able to provide needs that are affordable to the community.”

But after taking a step back, Jitan said organizers were able to look at the bigger picture: If some people needed the pantry, wouldn’t it make sense as a community group to fulfill that need? 

The answer was yes. 

“It was very exciting to be able to have the support to create something that’s sustainable and meets people’s needs, but also at the same time works towards a larger vision,” Jitan said. 

That larger vision is the Englewood Fresh Market, a store that will offer locally sourced produce and meals from Chicago-area chefs. 

The market is across the street from the pantry. Jitain said the openings mean neighbors now have two options for fresh food and can choose what best fits their financial needs.

“IMAN looks at health and healing. And in the populations that we work with, there are food deserts,” Jitain said. “There aren’t healthy, nutritious foods that are accessible. Receiving the grant perfectly aligned with what we want to do in the community.”

IMAN’s new Food and Wellness Center near 63rd and Racine in Englewood in operation on June 18, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘More Than Just A Food Pantry’

At the IMAN Food and Wellness Center, residents can browse and shop much like they would at a grocery store. Canned soups, cereals and sweet potatoes line the shelves. In the refrigerator, fresh oranges, gallons of milk and eggs are chilled. 

Jitan said creating the “client choice model” was an executive decision made by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network to make residents feel comfortable.

“Instead of just being handed the food box and sent on their way, people can come in and choose what they want like they’re shopping at a grocery store with some dignity,” Jitan said. “This is not just a place for food distribution, but a place for building sustainable communities around food.”

Trotter said the Inner-City Muslim Action Network understood the assignment. 

The mission when awarding the grants was to have organizations create a space that was more than just a food pantry. The space needed to be warm, vibrant. “People should come and feel welcome,” Trotter said. 

The Inner-City Muslim Action Network is fulfilling that goal by doubling the pantry as a food distribution center and an outreach space. Downstairs, residents shop. Upstairs, residents engage with their community, 

“Upstairs, our outreach and intervention teamwork to address violence in the community proactively by building relationships and mediating conflicts,” Jitan said.

On Wednesdays, the group hosts a “conversation circle” with community members to talk about an issue or concern in the neighborhood.

“Food pantries are a place where people can go and find food and hope,” Trotter said. “That’s the whole idea.”

IMAN staff and volunteers help serve a woman at the new IMAN Food and Wellness Center. Credit: Kenneth Johnson/Greater Chicago Food Depository

The Work Continues

Jitan said he’s hopeful for the days ahead. 

In June, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network received a $10 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. When Jitan received the news, he was surprised.  

Now, he said he’s excited to witness how the “big boost of support” will help the organization continue its work. 

“We are making sure that [the donation] will be used and driven by those who are most directly affected by the issues that we’re working on,” Jitan said. “That’s everything from racial justice to police accountability to food justice.” 

In the days ahead, Jitan said the group is ready to do the work it takes to place more resources in the community. 

One day, he said, he hopes food pantries won’t be necessary. 

“Long term, I hope that there’s a way people always have access to food,” Jitan said.  “The hope is that the food pantry can be a way to build toward that vision so that we are building a sustainable food system.”

IMAN’s new Food and Wellness Center near 63rd and Racine in Englewood in operation on June 18, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation

Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis