Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at Beyond Hunger’s new Austin location. (Provided)

After expanding rapidly to meet the growing need spurred by the pandemic, a food access program has relocated to Austin’s Soul City Corridor.

The new location for Beyond Hunger’s home delivery program at 5317 W. Chicago Ave. will allow it to increase how many people it serves and offer a wider range of food options, giving people more choice over the kinds of food they can access through the program.

Before the pandemic, the home deliver program allowed Beyond Hunger to provide groceries to about 80 households each month. But when the pandemic hit, the demand for food delivery swelled, and the program quickly grew to serve around 300 households monthly, said Teri Miller, from Beyond Hunger.

“The need exploded when everything happened last year in March. The community reached out to us with the need to have groceries delivered,” Miller said.

Funded by a grant from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the new location has space for more kinds of food. That allows the program to serve more people who have specialized dietary needs, like a renal diet or a heart-healthy diet, Miller said.

“What that really does is stabilize the home delivery program. It allows us to maintain and expand that program,” Miller said. “More importantly, it allows us to offer a larger variety of food items to the participants in that program.”

Each month, Beyond Hunger does a wellness call with program participants to walk them through a menu of food items that can be delivered. More options means participants can make better nutritional choices, Miller said.

“In the past, we might have had 1 percent milk or regular milk available. Now, we can also offer alternative milks for folks who can’t have dairy in their diet. We’ll offer low-sodium or heart healthy items … . We have more space to have some more variety,” Miller said.

The home deliver program began when Beyond Hunger staff noticed it was hard for older people to get to the food pantry at the organization’s headquarters in the basement of First United Church, 848 Lake St. in Oak Park, Miller said. The group started off by supporting Oak Park Township’s meals-on-wheels program by delivering groceries to older people to supplement the daily hot meal they were receiving.

The home deliveries have since expanded to other senior homes, and most participants are older residents of Oak Park and Austin and others who struggled with food access and faced barriers that made it a challenge to pick up food from local pantries. The new location is near senior centers served by the program, including Thresholds and Senior Suites of Austin.

The program operates through referrals with partner organizations. One partner is the 15th Police District, which maintains a watch list of vulnerable residents who needed food. Last year, police helped deliver food for the program to about 100 households on its list, Miller said.

The new location will allow Beyond Hunger to better serve people experiencing food insecurity due to the pandemic, Miller said. But many residents and older people on the West Side struggled to go out and get food themselves even before the pandemic, Miller said, meaning the expansion will help fill a gap that has always been there.

“The pandemic really highlighted the issue that there’s a lot of folks who were unable to get out, or maybe were afraid to get out … to get groceries. That was really aggravated by the health crisis,” Miller said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.