One morning last month, volunteers and employees of Circle Urban Ministries were busy preparing for trucks to pick up food to be distributed to West Side residents living with disabilities.
Eleven cardboard boxes were lined up waiting for frozen food items to place in them. Blue thermal bags filled with fresh produce of onions, parsley and collard greens provided by Forty Acres Fresh Market also was going to be given away. And a volunteer was putting together frozen, including pizzas, chicken and ground beef.
A little after 9 a.m., the trucks arrived and the loading began. Soon, people living with disabilities in Austin would have food delivered straight to their home – at no cost – for the first time.
Circle Urban Ministries have been serving the entire 60644 ZIP code by providing a grocery store experience in their food pantry once a month; for over two years, clients have been able to pick out the food they need and want.
Now, the pantry has expanded to delivering food boxes twice a month with the help of the city and Thierer Family Foundation’s Vivery Idea Lab.
The goal is to deliver 25-pound boxes of food to 150 Austin residents living with disabilities over the next six months.
The hope is to streamline the process in this pilot before expanding to other areas of the city permanently, Vivery Idea Lab Managing Director Ashley Friend said.
“One of the barriers for people with disabilities is access to transportation. For people that don’t have transportation, it is difficult to get access to food,” said Rachel Arfa, who’s with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, which has partnered with Vivery Idea Lab
A 2015 report by the Greater Chicago Food Depository found that 70% of people with disabilities are also low-income in the 60644 ZIP code, the same area the Circle Urban Ministries food pantry serves.
With emergency SNAP benefits ending March 1 and food inflation prices still high, they expect demand at the food pantry demands will increase, Anderson said.
“The most expensive part of this pilot is the produce, but we know how critical that is for the individuals that are receiving it,” Friend said.
Dalia Almanza of the Theirer Foundation said the first round is initial staples items, but they will have surveys for clients to fill out for future requests and preferences. All the food is donated by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, so sometimes low stock and price inflated items, like eggs, are hard to come by.
Darielle Anderson of Circle Urban Ministries said she’s had a vision for the pantry, and the Vivery Idea Lab was that piece she needed to make home deliveries a reality. Volunteer drivers are too much of a liability for the organization, so they rely on Vivery Idea Lab to make the home deliveries.
Vivery Idea Lab partnered with Delivery First to provide drivers, who are locally hired employees. There are about 120 drivers on the roster, and they are trying to keep the same drivers with the same addresses to create trusting relationships, said Amanda Greenberg of Delivery First.
Friend said it felt natural to start the food delivery pilot in Austin since Vivery Idea Lab first started working there in 2021 with Austin Coming Together. The 150 deliveries will be divided among four pantries: Circle Urban Ministries, Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, Iglesia Evangelica Emanuel and Hope Community Church.
Over 200 people applied for the pilot, many in Austin, Friend said.
“What we’ve seen is that there is a lot of need beyond the Austin community,” Friend said. “We’re not slowing down. I actually have a goal to increase my deliveries this year 10 times from what we did last year.”