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Grocery Run Club and the Power of Community Action

Published October 29, 2020

Notre Interviews Grocery Run Club

Chicago natives Lucía Angel and Jorge Saldarriaga launched Grocery Run Club in July as a way to support their city during a challenging time. With the Covid-19 pandemic in full-swing, they saw many nonprofits start food distributions and essential product drives—work those organizations began to accommodate the needs of their communities.

GRC is Angel and Saldarriaga’s way to support these organizations’ efforts. GRC began small, with the pair asking friends and family to contribute $5 so that they could purchase groceries to donate. Angel and Saldarriaga ended up raising $300, which encouraged them to envision what this call to action could look like on a larger scale.

“Everyone should have access to food,” Saldarriaga says. “Everyone should have a meal on the table.”

Now, months into the pandemic, Angel and Saldarriaga have been able to sustain GRC with a membership program that they compare to a Netflix subscription: you can choose from one of three membership levels to make monthly recurring donations, or make a one-time donation. At this point, GRC has around 350 monthly donors and has had about 180 one-time donations.

In their professional careers, Angel and Saldarriaga have held jobs in hospitality and marketing, and as event producers and cultural programmers. They see GRC as a reflection of their two worlds, with their organization aiming to engage Chicago’s Latinx and Black communities—underserved areas predominantly on the South and West sides—and the city’s arts and culture scene.

GRC has already spearheaded a few projects that have already brought those communities together. In late July, they worked with Chicago-based ALT_Market to transform an abandoned building in Austin into an art installation where residents could grab free food from the shelves and were encouraged to leave excess, nonperishable items. In another partnership with The Love Fridge Chicago in August, GRC helped stock two community fridges in Pilsen and Little Village, the latter of which was decorated by Chicago artist Runsy.

“All of the programming that we've done and all of our relationships have gotten us to this point,” Angel says. “At the end of the day, it's all centered around community. It's all centered around bridging relationships and supporting one another in whatever way that may look like. I don't think either of us thought this is what Grocery Run Club would become.”

Tara Mahadevan
Jorge Saldarriaga
Lucía Angel

Why did partnering with local organizations make more sense than directly giving food to people?

We found it super important to not just walk into a neighborhood, onto a block and be like, “We know what y'all want. Here we are—we’re your saviors.” That's such a horrible way of thinking and of actually trying to do the work. We also had conversations about what charity really looks like. GRC is supporting its neighbors. We're all one and the same. We want to show up. We want to talk to the organizations that know, that have a pulse on the neighborhood, on the community—and we want to make sure we're showing up correctly, showing up with culturally affirming produce and everyday essentials. We just want to do it the right way.

We already understood that even though we're born and raised in the city, we don't know what all 77 neighborhoods need. Who can tell us that better than the people that are already doing the work on the ground? We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to support people who are already making things work and allow their work to be amplified or to reach other community members.

You’ve utilized your connections in the arts to elevate GRC, collaborating with The Love Fridge Chicago and ALT_Market for food projects that also encompass an artistic vision.

When we were coming up with GRC, we wanted to make sure that it was something that we would want to be a part of, so we really leaned into the visual aspect of everything that we're doing. There's so many amazing nonprofits in the city, but we feel that some of them lack the visual aspect that catches your eye and really gets people to understand the story and the work that you're doing.

We wanted to make sure that everything we did made sense and was according to those same ideals. So for us, an important part of our work on a normal day is supporting artists, especially supporting Black and Latinx artists. When we had the opportunity to work with The Love Fridge, it just made sense for us to incorporate our aesthetics into the project—and it was also an opportunity to work with Runsy and make sure we were able to support her during this time, pay her, and still have something happen for the community that looked really great as well. We live in this middle area and want to find a way to plug in all of these people and [create] work that's really meaningful for everyone.

At its core, GRC is a reflection of its community. It's focused on food access, but it's also a reflection of Chicago, of the people within our network. It reaches and spans so many different groups of people.

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Why does GRC choose to provide fresh produce over canned food?

Fresh produce is a tricky one because ideally, we would give out fresh produce all the time. We want people to have healthy options. Canned food, the non-perishable stuff is hard sometimes because it's not the healthiest option.

But we have learned that fresh produce might not necessarily be best going into the fall and winter months and might not be the best option for people in these underserved communities. They might not even have the opportunity to cook because they don't have a stove or an oven—so at the core, yes, we were specifically trying to give people healthy, fresh food options so that they can cook and have a meal at home. But we [have] learned rapidly that, at this point, with COVID-19 and with everything going on, it's just the matter of getting food on the table and surviving.

The fresh produce point came from one of our first partners, the North Lawndale Community Garden. We started to provide these produce boxes for them—but it was also just taking a survey of what was available in the surrounding blocks. So in the surrounding blocks from that community garden, there was no grocery store that offered fresh produce.

We knew that people could potentially walk to the corner store and grab these non-perishables and that it would be easier for us to bring them fresh produce. We want to make sure we’re providing culturally affirming items to people, especially during the pandemic. We don't want people to open up a box and be like, “I don't know what this is or how to use this.”

Because Jorge and I are on the ground and doing all of this work face-to-face with people, we’re able to ask them, “What do you want in your produce box?” At the North Lawndale Community Garden, people were like, “We want collard greens, we want okra, and we want corn.” We're able to make sure that the produce boxes are reflective of what people want.

How does GRC allow you to feel more connected to Chicago’s Latinx community and to your own family and heritage?

I come from a single-parent household. Whenever I talk to my uncles and aunts, they always remind me that my mom was the one that took care of them in the household. She's one of 12 and she had her job and then came home. She would buy the fridge because they didn’t have a fridge, then she’d buy the food to fill the fridge; she took care of the house. I think it's a representation of the majority of Latinx households, which is we take care of our own, we take care of our communities, and we put in the work to take care of ourselves. I'm finding that GRC is the reflection of that in present-day 2020. This is another iteration of what our ancestors, what my ancestors, what my heritage is all about.

Both of my grandfathers were migrant workers, so to think that my family is here because [they] would come from Mexico to California to literally pick food to put on other people's tables is where I think my innate connection to food comes from. Obviously that's been built upon through my culture in the way that we eat in a Mexican household and how food brings everyone together.

Through GRC, what is so easy and natural is just thinking about my parents and the things that were always in our household and I’m so grateful for that—but how they are such simple things that GRC can provide for other families. Getting oil, salt, tomatoes, potatoes, and tortilla for a family costs us such a small amount but is literally the reason why some folks have food on the table. All of that comes full circle, I think for us specifically when we're servicing Latinx households because it feels like it's just an extension of our own.

What are your long-term goals for GRC?

Creating community gardens has been the stronghold, long-term goal. That definitely hasn’t changed; we’re still trying to navigate and figure out what that’s going to look like.

I would say that’s the big one. Because our first organizational partner was a community garden, we see the value that brings not only to beautifying the neighborhood but to providing food education, and for residences that are able to come through and plant things in the garden, pick food from the garden, literally watch it grow. We've seen the difference that it makes in a community—and with so many vacant lots on the South and West sides, it just seems natural for us to have community gardens that impact the actual community and actually feed the community. So that's definitely one that we feel very, very tied to and that we're going to make sure we make happen.

It’s this idea of when you share food and break bread with a stranger, there's already that natural connection of knowing food’s importance to basically everyone. These community gardens can really be leveraged and be an opportunity to open up doors between different communities, even ones that are side-by-side but in a very segregated city.

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