Cops in Austin, Beyond Hunger team on groceries for 100 elders

15th District has list of high-risk Austin seniors

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Melissa Elsmo

Oak Park Eats Editor

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis new partnerships are emerging to address the changing needs of vulnerable populations. On March 31, more than a dozen uniformed Chicago police officers descended on Beyond Hunger's food pantry in Oak Park to pick up more than 3,000 pounds of groceries bound for 100 high-risk residents in Austin -- seniors with dementia, chronic illness, or disabilities.

"Senior citizens are among those most effected by the COVID-10 pandemic; they need to stay home to stay safe making it more difficult to access groceries," said Adriana Riano, program manager at Beyond Hunger. "We need to do what we can to fill that gap."

Beyond Hunger has operated a home-delivery program for four years in concert with Oak Park Township's senior services program. Riano said Beyond Hunger has been looking to expand its home-delivery program into Austin for quite some time.

Police officers in Austin's 15th district complete well checks on senior residents in the 60644 and 60651 zip codes throughout the year. More than 100 seniors in Austin have been identified as "level one," meaning they have mobility or memory issues that make it challenging for them to leave their homes to travel to a grocery store or food pantry.

Officer William Martinez is the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) Youth officer in the 15th district, but with schools closed and afterschool programs canceled he and other CAPS officers pivoted when they were granted permission to aid seniors during this unprecedented time.

Many of the food pantries in the Austin zip codes have ceased operations because of coronavirus. Less than six pantries are currently open in Austin making food more scarce than usual. A couple of pantries, like Hope House, were able to provide limited provisions to those in desperate need before Beyond Hunger came through with the large donation.

"This undertaking was triple the size of our regular home delivery program," said Riano, "we had to request an extra truckload of food from The Greater Chicago Food Depository to meet the demand."

It took two weeks of planning to get the job done, but on March 31 the operation swung into motion. Beyond Hunger pre-packed bags for residents that included "a little bit of everything." Each senior received 37 pounds of nutrient dense foods including milk, eggs, cereal, bread and canned goods.

Because Beyond Hunger is working to minimize the need for volunteers during the COVID-19 outbreak, uniformed officers picked-up more than 200 bags of groceries and packed them into four vehicles. The process was a team effort and remained mindful of proper social distancing.

"Beyond Hunger provided so much food we had to make two trips," said Martinez.

Martinez worked with Commander Yolanda Talley, Officer Tonya Collins and two units of District Coordinating Officers to personally distribute the donated food over two days.

"The issue facing many seniors is they are on a fixed income and are running on fumes at the end of the month," said Martinez. "To be honest many of them, especially those without other family, cried when we delivered the food to them."

Riano said demand for food distribution services are increasing all around Cook County and monetary donations increase the Beyond Hunger's purchasing power and helps to keep the program viable during times of heightened need.

 "The Chicago Police Department has made a partnership with Beyond Hunger that has made a difference in the Austin community," said Martinez. "We hope to keep this going long after this pandemic subsides."

Beyond Hunger and CPD are looking to schedule a second distribution later in April and have tentative dates scheduled.

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