Q&A with Ann Jackson

Ann Jackson is the founder of the Center for Food Equity in Medicine, a Chicago-based organization that provides quality nutrition to citizens managing and maintaining wellness during health crises. A cancer survivor herself, she was the recipient of NBC 5’s “Making a Difference” Award in March 2021 for her work supporting those suffering from cancer and other chronic illnesses who also face food insecurity. Civitas is honored to fundraise for the Center with our April 9 performance, Springtime Sonder. A portion of ticket sales and donations will support the Center’s work as they continue to reach struggling patients and their families during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Civitas’ Administrative Manager Dan Hickey interviewed Ann via Zoom about the origins of the Center, her work during Covid, and what’s coming next for the organization.

Dan: What inspired you to begin this work? To found an organization?

Ann: My parents enjoyed spending time with their friends and with other families. A big part of those interactions was that there was always good food. My dad had a garden and each summer at harvest time, we would make baskets and we would go and take this fresh produce to our neighbors. I think that was what really solidified for me that food was essential to the human connection.

Then I started having friends who got sick. My best friend lived in Oakland, California, and she had a rare stomach cancer. She wanted a very particular dinner, and so I went through the process of cooking the dinner, freezing it, and having it FedExed to her the next day. I still have that container because it just reminds me of how important food and nutrition and that connection to people is. 

When I had a cancer diagnosis, I watched people around me trying to figure out how to stretch their dollar to be able to get through the day. I remember one gentleman in particular saying to his caregiver, “We had to get here so early and I didn't have any breakfast. Do we have money for breakfast?” And his grandson said, “No, we really don't. We have to pay for parking.” Incidents like that made me say, “OK, there's something here that you can do.” 

Ann making a food delivery during a Chicago winter

In the summer of 2017, I did a fellowship and we had a speaker that talked about her work and food insecurity. I realized that this was really the issue and this was really what I wanted to give voice to. Her name is Dr. Stacy Lindau and she is the founder of the Lindau Laboratory at the University of Chicago. We immediately jumped right into dialogue and in November 2017, the pantry within the University of Chicago's Cancer Center opened. And since then, we've probably had right around 8,500 touch points.

After about a year and a half I realized that if people were coming to the hospital seeking food, then I needed to start thinking about how to serve them where they live. How do we go from the treatment table to your kitchen table? So that has been a big part of our work in the last two years.

Dan: When you put it all together like that, it very much seems like a lifetime in the making.

Ann: Yeah, I was doing stuff like this all the time. But now there's some urgency to it. When you have a cancer diagnosis, you feel like you don't have any time to waste in life. And so I moved through it with lots of intention and for the people that we serve. 

Dan: What does an average day on the job look like? What are some of the typical things you do?

Ann: I would say that the day looks different every day because I do this totally as a volunteer. When we’re doing this work, we’re connecting to families. If a referral comes from a social worker or someone else who knows of our work, we try and find out, “What do you like for breakfast? What do you like for lunch? What do you like for dinner? What do you snack on? What do the other people who sit at your table at meal time like?” So we do a lot of grocery shopping.

Every month we take food down to the pantry at the University of Chicago's Cancer Center. We really like to come and bring name brand things. The team tells us it just flies off the shelf. We bring about four hundred dollars worth of food, which comes out to maybe a hundred pounds of food, depending on what it is. It’s things like broth, soup mix, spaghetti sauce, rice dinners, name brand cereal, oatmeal. Things that vary in texture so people who have throat cancer can find something, and people who are feeding children. We also work with a partner called the Grocery Run Club. Every other Friday, I drive to Pilsen and pack food for families and deliver it. 

The other thing is that usually we are planning to execute a food distribution event. That takes about a month to plan. Then there’s the execution, then doing the follow up reports and stuff. That can take me six weeks to do.

Ann and volunteer Bobby at a food distribution event

Dan: Has Covid impacted a lot of that work?

Ann: Covid really launched our Grocery Brigade program because we weren't really thinking about serving people in that way. But when people who are food insecure and immunocompromised are unable to safely move about on public transportation, that really made us switch gears. The pandemic caused us to become more creative and more thoughtful in the ways that we could touch those in need. So the pandemic has really caused us to do a lot of growth. The work we did in 2020 as compared to what we did in 2019 was almost a 400% growth.

Dan: Wow, that's very impressive.

Ann: When we started the pandemic, my car was already twelve years old and had 285,000 miles when we started the grocery runs. Now it has 294,000 miles because of what we've been doing since last March.

Dan: In a perfect world, what would the next steps of growth be for the Center?

Ann: In a perfect world, we would find some funding that would let us be consistently of service to people. Our recipient list is growing. It would bring us no greater joy than to be able to touch their lives in a positive way every month. 

I really am working to bring the issue of food insecurity among cancer patients and other people with chronic health conditions into a more national conversation so that it can really impact policy around how some dollars are distributed and what health care systems become responsible for so that they can begin caring for the whole person. If you're food insecure and you have cancer, that on average can increase your medical bills by eleven thousand dollars. So if you could give an organization like ours a few thousand dollars a year, then we could save these health care dollars.

Our goal is really to serve an extremely vulnerable population. We're talking like this is really heavy, but there's so much joy. I'm just so glad I am able to do something for somebody else.