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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Woodlawn’s Market Box Mutual Aid Program Needs Your Help Delivering Free Food To Neighbors In Need

More than 9,000 boxes of fresh produce, neighborhood news and info about community organizing have been given away since the program was founded early in the pandemic.

Some of the items included in the Market Boxes, distributed monthly to more than 400 families — mainly on the South Side.
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WOODLAWN — The Market Box program needs more volunteers to keep going as it nears its two-year anniversary of providing fresh produce and community news to hundreds of families every month.

Market Box’s packages, delivered weekly to families facing food insecurity, include seasonal produce. The food is sourced from small, local farms through North Side distributor Local Foods. Bread from Publican Quality Bread and eggs are also included in the boxes.

Organizers are looking for volunteers to pack this month’s deliveries and drive them to families Saturday and on March 26. Packing and pickups will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 6400 S. Kimbark Ave. in Woodlawn. To volunteer, click here.

“We’ve been sustained — with the exception of a couple of grants — by smaller, recurring donations and volunteers,” organizer Maira Khwaja said. “It’s been really cool to see this community emerge from people who are down to come together in a sustainable way.”

Market Box was founded by the Experimental Station, Invisible Institute, Build Coffee, South Side Weekly and Star Farm as neighbors struggled financially and farmers markets closed during the statewide shutdown in April 2020.

The program has expanded from delivering 70 food boxes on its first distribution day to delivering to more than 400 families — most of whom live on the South Side — every month. More than 9,000 Market Boxes have been delivered to date, organizers said.

Beyond free food, the deliveries include copies of South Side Weekly. They also come with a newsletter with information on local mutual aid efforts and organizing opportunities, like the push to prevent displacement in South Shore and preservationists’ efforts in Jackson Park.

The newsletter and South Side Weekly copies “are the biggest ways we’ve been keeping people up to date, as well as providing voting info, [where to get] free COVID tests and various resources and civic engagement opportunities,” Khwaja said.

Special events like a back-to-school pop-up last year and the Santa Box project in 2020 — where Market Box organizers partnered with writer Eve L. Ewing and independent bookstores — have also been held through the program.

Khwaja and writer Audrey Petty also recently directed an oral history project, through which dozens of Market Box recipients were interviewed about their pandemic experiences. A portion of the interviews were recorded and transcribed; they’ll be made public in the near future, Khwaja said.

Market Box moved out of the Experimental Station, which was also the program’s former fiscal sponsor, in February. Its operations are now based out of First Presbyterian Church about a half-mile away, and the Woodlawn-based journalism nonprofit Invisible Institute is its fiscal sponsor.

First Presbyterian has “welcomed us in — not as a church program, but because their doors are open to all kinds of non-religious” programs, said Khwaja, who is also the Invisible Institute’s outreach director.

Market Box continues a “long tradition” of radical organizing at the church where Gwendolyn Brooks once started an informal writing workshop for members of the Blackstone Rangers, Khwaja said.

From regular volunteers and donors to Local Foods and First Presbyterian, there’s a long list of Chicagoans whose generosity and willingness to collaborate have helped Market Box sustain itself through the pandemic’s first two years, Khwaja said.

“As everybody sees with these gas prices, things are economically really hard right now for the average person, and groceries are a place where people often have to cut their costs,” she said. “It’s really important to maintain this infrastructure of mutual aid to continue providing the freshest food possible around the South Side.”

To donate to the Market Box program, click here.

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