Inside the Chicago operation where Hale and her team cook and deliver hundreds of meals per week
By Lily Qi
In the kitchen of the Promontory, a restaurant in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Chanell Hale started her week carrying boxes of ingredients: chicken breast, pasta, broccoli, spinach, and huge jars of tomato sauces.
Since July, hundreds of meals have been cooked here every week and delivered to families, schools, and pop-up food distribution sites in the city. In one particular week, Hale had five different deliveries in one day.
On the South and West Sides of Chicago, where food insecurity was already a problem, the pandemic made it worse. The Latinx and Black populations in these neighborhoods are experiencing a spike in food demand during the pandemic. Research shows that forty percent of the respondents with children are running out food or couldn’t access resources. Many families and individuals rely on deliveries and pop-up events to meet their basic needs to survive.
Hale found cooking after losing her brother to gun violence. At the time, she was in college in southern Illinois getting her bachelor’s degree in psychology. “He was shot seven times,” she said. “And they got it wrong, he wasn’t even the target.”
After getting her master’s degree in social work, Hale started working with schools in the city, teaching children about healthy recipes and hosting cooking workshops there. In 2013, she opened her own catering business, Dreamvents Catering, worked as a caterer and personal chef.
But the pandemic hit Hale’s catering business hard. She now only has two or three groups of customers every week, and spends the rest of her time cooking in the kitchen for families to whom she delivers food every week, and for various food distributions in the city.
I got in touch with her over Facebook in early June, right after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) shut down its free meal plan for a day on June 2, due to the unrest in the city. She was one of the many who offered free meals and delivery to students in need.
The plan was to talk about what happened on June 2. But to my surprise, Hale had continued preparing meals for families and children after that day. She kept receiving donations from all over the world. A group of volunteers were helping her with cooking, packaging, and delivery. They recently received help from the Promontory that allows her to cook in an industrial kitchen without paying four hundred dollars for a shared kitchen.
“It really helps with lowering the cost, I’d have to budget way more if some organizations ask me to cook for their pop-up food distributions,” she said. “I didn’t know we could continue doing this for so long, it’s such a blessing.”
Hale couldn’t count how many pop-up distributions and food giveaways she had been to. She told me she “only” cooked a hundred and fifty meals in the previous week, which was a very small number compared to the weeks prior.
I contacted her again in mid-August, and we met up in person on a Monday at the kitchen space in Hyde Park.
Hale told me that recently, things have been slowing down. Fewer donations are coming in. This week, a group organizing trainings for protesters reached out to her to see if she can provide meals for the training. Yet, she still plans to go to a few families to whom she always delivers food and bring extra meals to a pop-up community day in Bronzeville.
She is part of the large network of people and organizations trying to alleviate the food scarcity situation. Grassroots activists in the Black and Brown communities formed various food distributions and projects to help their own communities. Still, there’s a huge gap between what people need and what people can do. And the long hours of cooking and delivering, along with the lack of funding, often keep these efforts from running long-term.
Though that week’s cooking was for an event, Hale said they usually all look the same. The first day is a long cooking day – seven hours in the kitchen chopping, boiling, baking and seasoning. More cooking on the second day as well as packing, ending with packing and delivery on the third and fourth days. “I used to do these all by myself,” she told me. “The presence of volunteers has really helped a lot.”
Hale always looked energetic. When I was exhausted from days of photographing and trying to maintain social distance from everyone, she kept an uplifting attitude. We drove through Bronzeville, and when she heard the noises from the street, she said, “Ah, I just love Chicago. People are crazy but just so funny.”
At thirty-two, Hale dreams about a lot of things that could happen in her life: opening her own restaurant; hosting cooking workshops for kids and families; getting a doctoral degree to research food therapy; setting up an organization to offer more food for children in the communities. Perhaps, one day, she’ll have her own family. In the meantime, in he midst of a pandemic, she keeps up hope for herself and her community. ■
Lily Qi is a photojournalist whose work has appeared in Civil Eats, the South Side Weekly, and the Navajo Times, among others.
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