CHICAGO — A set for a TV show that looked like a corner store stirred false hope in neighbors living in a West Side food desert — and then the show threw out a dumpster's worth of food and household supplies that decorated the make-believe shop, residents said.
With no grocery stores available for many people in the area, and unwilling to let the items go to waste, North Lawndale residents helped each other pick through the dumpster Monday so they could bring home food to their families.
The set at 19th Street and Kedzie Avenue led to frustration in the neighborhood this summer when residents mistook it for a real corner store, a much-needed business in a neighborhood where residents seldom see investment and have few, if any, options for buying groceries.
"The Chi," which is set to run on Showtime and is produced by Chicago native and Emmy winner Lena Waithe, depicts life and its challenges on the South Side of Chicago. Neighbors questioned why the items weren't donated to a shelter or food pantry to benefit local families in need.
"It is so shameful that a company like this is profiting off of a show about the hardships and struggles ... living individuals face living in Chicago," wrote Jayleen Sandoval, a neighbor of the set, on Facebook. "It is even more shameful that the company failed to recognize that all the food and items they simply tossed could have been donated to the numerous shelters around the Chicagoland area INCLUDING the South Side."
"Hey, someone can eat that"
The fake store has been in use since at least mid-June, but creators of "The Chi" finished filming there this week, and the show's very real props were apparently thrown out Monday.
The trashed props — which had lined the "store's" shelves — included everything from canned tuna to sponges, cleaning supplies, diapers, condoms and snacks. It "hurt" to see how disposable everything was to the show's staff, said Kimberly Camacho, a Harold Washington College student who lives near the set. Camacho is a roommate of Sandoval.
"It felt like they just got what they wanted and left," Camacho said. "I felt insulted."
Representatives from the show did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Camacho, her roommate and their neighbors weren't going to let the items go to waste: They got into the dumpster and grabbed the items that hadn't been opened and contaminated. Camacho estimated the dumpster held enough items to help 40 families.
Children poked around the dumpster, grabbing food for their families and avoiding trash and broken glass as adults told them what they should take, Camacho said. Camacho and her roommate were the only ones with flashlights, so they used their lights to help neighbors find items they needed. Camacho also grabbed food for people standing outside the dumpster, and residents helped each other get into and out of the dumpster so they could search.
"I just don't understand how they can film about the South Side struggle and then not help the struggle," Camacho said. "I just don't understand what happened, what went through [the show organizers'] heads when they threw that all away. How did no one on the team be like, 'Hey, someone can eat that'?
"It just seemed like common sense to give it to someone. ... How do you become so entitled that you think it's best or easier to throw it away and that it's not worth the effort to give that food to someone in need?"
Camacho was able to get a packet of sponges she's wanted but has hesitated to buy because money is tight and there's few places where she can find sponges in the area. Laughing, she explained the pack of sponges make her feels like "we're set for life."
"I was able to fill up two bags of food," Camacho said.
Photos show her haul: Hamburger Helper, oatmeal, granola bars, cleaning wipes, flour and more.
"When they threw away that stuff, it was basically like having a pantry in my yard. It should have been in a pantry in the first place or a woman's shelter — anything would have been better than" throwing it out.
Food desert realities
Camacho was one of those who had mistaken the set for a real store this summer, growing excited when she spotted it because she's "aware [North Lawndale's] a food desert."
She'd look inside at the fake store's packed shelves and think, "Wow, wish I could have those chips," she said.
The student quickly realized the store wasn't real and kept getting groceries the only way she often can in North Lawndale: visiting local food pantries, which requires waiting hours in line to grab household necessities, and spending hours coordinating twice-a-month visits to a grocery store in southwest suburban Cicero.
The Cicero trips are a "hassle," Camacho said, but they're the easiest way she can access cheap groceries as a North Lawndale resident. There are no major grocery stores near her home.
Camacho spends days organizing the trips with her sister: They have to find a date that works for both of them so they can help each other and share a Link card for savings, and they plan their purchases carefully since they'll have to go weeks without another visit to a grocery store.
Traveling to Cicero might take almost as much time as going to a store in the city, but at least Cicero doesn't have the same taxes as Chicago does, Camacho said. The suburb's stores also give customers free plastic bags that Camacho can use for trash, saving her even more money.
Before Camacho moved to North Lawndale in July, she lived in Irving Park. She could cross the street and be at a grocery store when she lived there, she said, but that's not the case on the West Side.
"Here, you have to plan the day out to get your carts, your bags. If you don't plan correctly, you don't have enough bags for all your stuff or enough space in your cart," Camacho said. "I didn't know how good I had it" in Irving Park.
Camacho — who considers herself privileged compared to other North Lawndale residents since she has a Link card and is able to make trips to local food pantries — said going through the set's dumpster saved her having to wait in long lines at food pantries.
It was even more helpful for others who aren't as privileged, Camacho said.
"It means a little more time in their day because they don't have to plan to go get those items, or ... instead of spending money on the food they got from the dumpster, they can dedicate [that] to maybe buying their kid a book or treating them to a muffin or something. Something that they can't have in everyday life," Camacho said.
A mess left behind
The end of filming brought another frustration besides the thrown-out food: Camacho said the store's painted exterior was washed away last week, but the cleaners left paint chips over the sidewalk and grass in a family area.
Camacho was "angry" about the leftover mess, she said, comparing it to a guest making a mess and not cleaning up. The paint chips were cleaned up some more by Monday, with some yellow still visible in the grass, but that was because neighbors went out to clean, Camacho said.
"People in the community were sweeping" the paint chips away, Camacho said. "They like to keep the neighborhood clean.
"It showed that they had pride in our neighborhood, and it's not just something to make money off of. To them, it's not the 'hood. To them, it's their home."