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'The Chi' Says Dumpster Food Was Expired — But Residents Say Otherwise

By Kelly Bauer | October 19, 2017 8:14am | Updated on October 19, 2017 8:17am
 People living in a
People living in a "food desert" in North Lawndale hoped they'd be able to get basic necessities from a new corner store (left). But the store ended up being a TV set, and this week the set dumped its props — including food and cleaning supplies — into the garbage.
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Courtesy Frank Bergh, Kimberly Camacho and Jayleen Sandoval

CHICAGO — A representative of the upcoming Showtime series "The Chi" that's caught flak for throwing away a dumpster full of food and household items in a West Side food desert says the food had expired and wasn't safe to eat.

But neighbors, who picked through the dumpster to find items they could bring home to their families, said that's not true and again questioned why the food wasn't donated.

The set at 19th Street and Kedzie Avenue was designed to look like a corner store and had been in use since at least mid-June. Filming finished, and the set's very real props apparently were thrown out Monday.

Jayleen Sandoval and her roommate, Kimberly Camacho, live next door to the North Lawndale set and joined other residents, including children, in going through the dumpster to find food and household supplies on Monday. They took home a variety of items, including flour, dish soap, sponges and granola bars.

"Their expiration date isn't until a very long time," said Sandoval, a University of Illinois at Chicago student who works two jobs.

Food like the edibles thrown out by the show can be hard to buy in North Lawndale, where 43 percent of households live below the poverty line and many don't have easy access to grocery stores. Residents were already frustrated after mistaking the set for a real store this summer, and after the food was thrown out, they questioned why the "The Chi" hadn't donated the items to help area families in need.

"The Chi," which is set to run on Showtime and is produced by Chicago native and Emmy winner Lena Waithe, will depict life and its challenges on the South Side of Chicago. 

In an email on Wednesday night, a Showtime spokeswoman said the items that were thrown out were "for filming purposes only and were never intended or maintained for consumption."

The spokeswoman said "most of the items" were expired and had been contaminated by rodents.

"The Chi," a new series from Showtime about life and hardships on Chicago's South Side, caught flak after the show's staff threw away food in a West Side food desert. Showtime said most of the food was expired and contaminated by rodents, but neighbors said that's not true and sent in photos of the food with expiration dates as far  away as 2020. [Courtesy Kimberly Camacho and Jayleen Sandoval]

But residents said they were careful to avoid food packages that had been opened and possibly contaminated, Sandoval said Wednesday night, and they checked the expiration dates before bringing anything home. None of the items Sandoval and Camacho brought home had old expiration dates or had been opened.

And Sandoval said many of the items in the dumpsters were nonperishables — including cleaning supplies and diapers — that wouldn't have presented the same liability concerns as food might have if "The Chi" had donated them.

Showtime did not immediately respond when asked about the nonexpired food and why the nonperishable items were thrown out.

"A lot of that stuff could have been donated without any liability issues," Sandoval said.

The show's staff could have put the items out on the street or even put out a sign so residents knew about the supplies "rather than wasting it," she added.

Sandoval and Camacho even took home a box of diapers from the dumpster so they could give them away and help someone in need, Sandoval said.

"We wouldn't let them go to waste," Sandoval said, adding they'd asked others who were looking in the dumpster if they needed the diapers before taking them to give away. They'd "rather not let them go to waste and just have them in good hands instead."

Workers power washed the paint off a TV set in North Lawndale last week. A photo from Oct. 11 shows yellow paint across the sidewalk. A resident said the paint is now mostly cleaned away, but said neighbors had gone out to sweep away the chips because of the mess. [Courtesy Frank Bergh]

The thrown-out food wasn't the only concern neighbors had with "The Chi" set. Camacho said the exterior paint of the set was washed away last week, but paint chips were left on the sidewalk and grass. Neighbors swept away the chips, Camacho said, and most of the paint was gone, though some was still visible Tuesday.

"Photos suggesting the production had abandoned the site before leaving it in proper shape were taken before cleanup had concluded," a Showtime spokeswoman wrote in an email Wednesday night. "The cleanup process takes several days, and additional cleanup was already scheduled for [Wednesday] and is in progress."

The spokeswoman also said the production has donated picnic benches, Chromebooks and hundreds of bookbags to the community. Showtime did not immediately respond when asked what organizations those items were donated to.

Like Camacho, who has to go to food pantries or travel to suburban Cicero for twice-a-month trips for groceries, Sandoval said it's not always easy getting groceries and household goods in the neighborhood.

Sandoval takes the Pink Line to Cermak and then walks to Pete's, Aldi's and a Walmart Express for food. It's manageable most of the time, Sandoval said, but it'll be a "hassle" when the winter comes because she has to walk and bring a cart. The trip takes about 25 minutes each way, she said, and they have to fit that in their schedules.

"We can't be out too late," Sandoval said. "We have school, and then work, so whenever we can on weekends" they go to the store.

But Sandoval and Camacho, who moved to North Lawndale in July, consider themselves luckier than most of their neighbors.

Camacho said she has a Link card she can use to help pay for food and is able to visit food pantries for help, while Sandoval said she has "more flexibility" than other residents because she's able to pay her rent and doesn't have the same concerns about getting kids to school or making the bills as other families do.

Camacho said going through the dumpster and grabbing food and household items meant she wouldn't have to wait hours in line at a food pantry. For other families with fewer privileges, it means being able to save money so they can instead buy a luxury, like a book for a child, she said.

Sandoval questioned why Showtime said most of the food was expired when, from her search of the dumpster, much of it was salvageable.

"They could have just apologized to the neighborhood," Sandoval said. "They could have done something for the neighborhood."

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