UPTOWN — A potential candidate for 46th Ward alderman said her City Hall aspirations are the reason her fresh produce distribution operation was shut down — but officials deny the shuttering was part of a political food fight spurred by current 46th Ward boss Ald. James Cappleman.
Denice Davis, former chief of staff to previous 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, had partnered as a volunteer coordinator with the Greater Chicago Food Depository for about 14 years to distribute free produce to Uptown residents in need.
Adeshina Emmanuel talks about Denise Davis' claims that politics closed her food program:
The program, Uptown Food For Families, feeds about 250-300 people each month, and had been based out of Uptown Baptist Church, 1011 W. Wilson Ave., since 2008. The installation of an elevator and other accessibility upgrades earlier this month forced the church to ask Uptown Food for Families to temporarily move for the next several months.
But Davis said when she notified the food depository on April 8 that she was seeking an interim base of operations, the food bank told her not to bother.
Uptown Food for Families was cut off from the food depository's supply of fresh produce and groceries.
Davis and other critics of Cappleman allege the alderman used his power to cripple the program and fluster his potential political opponent. Davis admitted she didn't have hard proof, but questioned the timing of the decision.
"Can I say beyond a doubt that Cappleman has shut this down, can I say that? No. Because he hasn't looked me in my face and said, 'I'm shutting you down,'" Davis said. "But do I know in my heart of hearts? I really firmly believe that. Because why now? Really, why now?"
But Davis' claims aren't true, Cappleman and Food Depository officials say.
"I had no input or influence with the Greater Chicago Food Depository's decision to discontinue a food pantry program at Uptown Baptist Church," Cappleman wrote in an email Monday. "I only learned of their decision after this service had already been discontinued."
Jim Conwell, a spokesman for the food depository, said Davis' program was no longer needed.
"Given the strong concentration of organizations and programs in Uptown we determined that we don't plan to continue that produce distribution," Conwell said.
The Food Depository said that it distributed about 1.8 million pounds of food per year in Uptown via various partners, including 10 food pantries, six soup kitchens and four shelters. The Food Depository considered Uptown Food for Families part of its "mobile distribution operation," which brings a truck full of food to be distributed at sites every third Wednesday of the month.
Conwell said the Food Depository was constantly "evaluating where we can best deploy those mobile resources."
When the organization was notified of Uptown Food for Families' plans to move, it re-evaluated the operation's place in its Uptown work and determined "doing a mobile distribution in uptown doesn't align with our strategy."
Still, Davis said she's seen a lot of funny business since she announced her ward boss aspirations, including false complaints that Uptown Food for Families was causing a fire hazard in the church basement that brought out the Chicago Fire Department.
Davis said she's also been falsely accused of using the program as "an organizing tool," and thought such complaints from Cappleman supporters hurt her volunteer efforts.
Conwell, however, said "we didn't receive any complaints" from Cappleman or anybody else about Davis using Uptown Food for Families as a political organizing tool.
Davis said that ultimately whatever happened, the true impact "is not about me."
"It's about the people who benefited from the Food Depository," she said.
Marcus Johnson, a 43-year-old Uptown resident with four teenage children, said that for him and other food stamp recipients who found their benefits didn't go far enough, the produce "assisted us all in terms of bringing home groceries to feed our families."
The closing of Uptown Food for Families "hurts the community, it hurts our families, it hurts our nutrition," he said. Even though there are other food pantry programs in Uptown, free fresh produce is hard to come by there, others said.
While Uptown Food For Families likely won't return in its previous form, Conwell said the Food Depository is open to the church establishing a nonprofit entity to distribute food in partnership with the organization and is willing to explore other partnerships with Davis "or any partner in a community in need."
Cappleman's chief of staff Tressa Feher emphasized that "anyone can stop by Alderman Cappleman's office to pick up a complete listing of food pantries and soup kitchens in the area who are in need. Or they can go to our website."