With increased unemployment, transportation disruptions and health risks during the pandemic, many Chicagoans struggled to access healthy and affordable foods. Communities throughout the city responded by organizing food-sharing systems in the form of public gardens, neighborhood refrigerators and food banks.
Meanwhile, city officials explored ways to improve food systems by supporting urban farmers, food businesses and nutrition programs in Black and brown neighborhoods with disproportionately high rates of food insecurity.
In June, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the creation of a Food Equity Council made up of city workers and local leaders aimed at addressing the root causes of food and nutrition insecurity. At the helm is Ruby Ferguson, who was hired in August as Chicago’s first-ever food equity policy lead. She recently joined Reset to talk about the new role and what she hopes to accomplish.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation.
What does this new job entail?
Ferguson: What we see in Chicago’s food system and food systems across the country is that food shows up everywhere. … But that work often becomes very siloed. My job is to connect the different spheres that food touches so that way we can, as a collective, make changes for the city.
I get excited when I see what food can do for people, so connecting the dots and creating a space where people can work together for a common cause is exhilarating. Food is power, food is medicine, food is healing, food is community.
What brought you to this role?
Ferguson: As I studied medicine, I realized that most of the diseases that were impacting Black and brown communities were of nutritional causes and a lot of those causes were not nutrition as a personal choice, as it is often told, but that entire communities were set up in a way where it was difficult to access healthy, nutritious food.
One thing that’s incredibly important for me is, when we tell the story of community, we need to not focus on the deficits or what’s lacking. We need to uplift the assets and use whatever power we have to connect those assets together so that we can move forward … This is not Ruby’s work. This is Chicago’s work. And I’m just there to make sure that we get there.
What’s on Chicago’s food equity agenda?
Ferguson: The ultimate goal is to build a more just and equitable food system together. I think ‘together’ is the keyword because it’s not the work of one department, but the work of department sister agencies and community leaders across the city. We want to connect more people to food assistance, create opportunities for farmers, producers and businesses, and transform communities with a history of disinvestment.
We have a bold agenda ahead of us. But I think we also need to uplift the incredible work that a lot of different community members have been doing in their spaces. [During the pandemic,] we saw fridges pop up in places; we saw people growing food for the first time; we saw people cooking for each other and delivering it to each other. And so how can we build upon those assets and connect the dots, so that as a city, we can collectively advance this agenda of having a more equitable and just environment system.
It’s really important to ensure that communities of color and disinvested communities have the capacity to grow their own food, the food they want to consume and have agency over their health and food.
How will the Chicago Food Fund function?
Ferguson: We want to support BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color) food businesses with access to capital. So that way, the grocery stores, the restaurants, the incredible food innovations that come into communities that are dealing with food insecurity, come from those communities.
How will the ending of pandemic unemployment benefits affect food equity?
Ferguson: This is a huge concern. We know that communities that are reliant on these supports are also dealing with higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other inflammatory responses. It is concerning when we think about access to food being one of the first things that falls off. … We really want to make sure that as an equity council, we think about how to prevent this from happening in the future.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.