Story by freelance journalist Jake Wittich

Chicago artist John Michael found Nourishing Hope during a period of unemployment beginning in 2023.

John Michael, an out gay man and performer, lost his job of five years while coping with losing three close friends to overdoses, he said. He remembered one of those friends teaching him about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, so he got on the program. And for the first time in his life, he turned to a food pantry, specifically Nourishing Hope’s Sheridan Market, for assistance.

John Michael recently started a new job this spring, and channeled the trauma of losing his loved ones into a solo show that shares his story while paying tribute to his friends. He credits Nourishing Hope for supporting him through a difficult time.

John Michael in a selfie

John Michael in a selfie

“Nourishing Hope made sure I had free food during a time when I couldn’t handle my own reality,” John Michael said. “And I want people to know that they shouldn’t feel guilty if they need to use it, too.”

John Michael is among a large portion of the LGBTQ+ community that has experienced food insecurity. A 2016 study by the Williams Institute out of the University of California, Los Angeles found 28% of LGBTQ+ adults had experienced food insecurity in the prior year, compared to the 17% of non-LGBTQ+ adults who did. LGBTQ+ people also receive SNAP benefits at twice the rate of non-LGBTQ+ people, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress.

LGBTQ+ people can face additional obstacles that make them more susceptible to food insecurity, experts say. And tackling the issue requires a multi-pronged approach when it comes to services.

“I like to think of food pantries as the emergency room for the social services world,” said Drew Moran, chief development officer and an out LGBTQ+ leader at Nourishing Hope.

“We’re the first place people go when they’re in crisis,” Moran said,”and we can provide them with not only food, but also mental health services, social workers and housing resources.”

Why do LGBTQ+ people face higher rates of food insecurity?

LGBTQ+ people can experience a range of unique challenges that contribute to food insecurity among the community, said Elana Redfield, federal policy director for the Williams Institute, which has done extensive research on the intersections of hunger and LGBTQ+ identity.

In September, the Williams Institute convened a group of community-based organizations to better understand the role that employment can play in tackling food insecurity among LGBTQ+ people, Redfield said. A common theme they found was lack of familial support or alienation from family can exacerbate these issues.

LGBTQ+ people also face higher rates of discrimination in the workplace, which can affect their ability to buy food.

Last year, 47% of LGBTQ+ adults were living in states that don’t protect them from workplace harassment or discrimination, according to the National LGBTQ Workers Center. LGBTQ+ people also make up 6.2% of adults in the U.S. who earn under $36,000 a year.

Stigma remains a pervasive issue for many LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans people of color.

Discrimination remains a pervasive issue for many LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans people of color.

These challenges can be compounded for the transgender community and other queer people of color, Redfield said.

Black, indigenous and Latino people face higher rates of food insecurity across the board, both within the LGBTQ+ community and the general population, Redfield said.

More than one-third of transgender people are living in poverty and an estimated 18% are unemployed, according to the 2022 U.S. Transgender Survey. Additionally, 30% of respondents said they had experienced homelessness in their lifetime.

Similar patterns have been recorded by the Williams Institute, which interviewed 93 low-income LGBTQ+ people in 2020 to identify trends among queer people, Redfield said. What they found were patterns of greater food insecurity among the study’s trans participants and people of color.

“Across the board we saw these patterns of big racial disparities among people who are food insecure,” Redfield said. “These are communities that face added discrimination that can compound their struggles with food insecurity.”

How Nourishing Hope supports LGBTQ+ people in need

Responding to food insecurity among LGBTQ+ people requires a multifaceted approach that provides people with food while also supporting them against its root causes, such as unstable housing or unemployment, Redfield said.

“What we’ve found is that housing is central to helping LGBTQ+ people with food insecurity,” Redfield said. “There’s a direct link between unstable housing and regular access to high-quality food.”

At Nourishing Hope, a selection of wraparound services are available to help people move beyond food insecurity, Moran said.

In addition to its two food pantries and online market, Nourishing Hope has mental health therapists who provide free trauma-informed counseling, and social services case managers to help connect people to housing and other needed resources.

Chief Development Officer Drew Moran stands for a portrait.

Chief Development Officer Drew Moran stands for a portrait.

It also has a small grant program that people can use for things like work uniforms, outfits for job interviews and more, Moran said.

“We aren’t just a food pantry anymore,” Moran said. “We’re trying to offer a holistic approach to helping our neighbors who are food insecure, and that means helping with things like mental health issues or housing instability.”

John Michael said these services helped get him through one of the toughest periods of his life. Now on the other side of things, he wants to use his story to help others going through similar challenges, he said.

“Nourishing Hope played a role in getting me here, and I’m happy that I used it when I did,” he said. “I hope that by sharing my story I can help others because so many people probably need food pantries but don’t know it’s an option for them.”

He’s done this by creating a solo show “Spank Bank Time Machine,” which uses comedy to tell the story of his friends’ overdoses and creates space to mourn their deaths, he said. He’s performing the show June 28-30 at the Steppenwolf Theater.

“The overdose epidemic cast a huge shadow over my friends’ own stories because of their own losses to that epidemic,” John Michael said. “They were so much more than the last moments of their life and yet the shame freezes their story.”

John Michael wasn’t done mourning his loved ones, so he created the play to address the stigma around drugs while teaching people how to use Narcan, which is used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations.

“One of my friends was found Googling what Narcan was in the last moments of their life,” he said. “I don’t want their stories to end there, and when I give out Narcan, I think of them.”

John Michael continues to honor their memories.

So far, he’s given out more than 700 Narcan kits through his play.

Jake Wittich is a Chicago-based writer with several years’ experience covering the city’s LGBTQ+ community at the Chicago Sun-Times, Block Club Chicago and Windy City Times. Currently, he’s the newsletter editor at Windy City Times, where he writes Chicago Social Butterflies, a weekly email blast sharing LGBTQ+ events across the city.