Ironically, Grocery Run Club didn't start out as a literal running club. It actually took more than a year to adopt that focus. In fact, the Chicago-based nonprofit was first founded by best friends Lucy Angel Camarena and Jorge Saldarriaga to address food insecurity in the city's underserved neighborhoods.
In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, shoppers experienced anxiety about food shortages and supply-chain disruptions that led to empty shelves and limited options at grocery stores. In fact, food insecurity — a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — doubled overall from February 2020 to May 2020 and tripled among households with children, according to a study from Northwestern University.
Feeling helpless about the lack of accessible fresh produce and basic necessities, Camarena and Saldarriaga began volunteering at a community garden to assemble produce distribution boxes in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. "We noticed that a lot of what was needed, especially in communities of color, was food access," explains Camarena. Research also says as much: Even before the pandemic, Latino or Hispanic and Black households in the U.S. experienced food insecurity rates of 15.8 percent and 19.3 percent, respectively — disproportionately higher than the 8.1 percent rate amongst white households. In North Lawndale specifically, the closest grocery store isn't even in the neighborhood, points out Camarena.
One weekend, the community garden's usual source for non-produce food and necessities fell through. Undeterred, Camarena and Saldarriaga asked friends to Venmo them five dollars each so the pair could go on a grocery run to gather supplies for community distribution. That's when the lightbulb went on.
"[We thought,] 'This is so unfair for us to have to rely on a larger entity [to distribute food and resources]," recalls Camarena. "'What can we do? How could we be this in-between to bridge the gap between organizations that were on the ground [battling food insecurity] and friends who wanted to help?"
Under that premise, Grocery Run Club officially launched in July 2020 with the goal "to create a continuous stream of funds so we could always support other nonprofits and community organizations," explains Saldarriaga. "Some of the largest issues [nonprofits face] is access to funding." Grocery Run Club organizes and mobilizes individuals and companies who can donate time, money, and expertise to improve food access by raising funds, soliciting volunteers, and shopping for groceries. That way, the larger organizations that Grocery Run Club works with can focus on operations and on-the-ground efforts.
While the pair knew that Grocery Run Club had the potential to impact hundreds of Chicagoans, "we didn't think we were starting a nonprofit when we started it," admits Saldarriaga. "We just received an amazing amount of support." Including, in June 2021, an offer for partnership from Lululemon.
Eventually, Grocery Run Club was ready to evolve to more fully embody its name. "After that first year, around Global Running Day, Lululemon reached out and asked if we'd thought about doing a run club," says Saldarriaga. "We had, because of our name."
Accepting the activewear brand's offer was a no-brainer, he says. There's often an intricate web linking food access, everyday necessities, and health and wellness, he points out. "If you see a lack of investment in food access, you'll likely see a lack of healthy habits" (think: exercising regularly) in those same demographics and neighborhoods, says Saldarriaga. "[When Lululemon reached out] it started making sense to collaborate with a run club." And so GRC Run Club, the running-focused offshoot of Grocery Run Club, was born.
The GRC Run Club founders enlisted friends Crystal Rosales and Marina Holter to be run leaders, using "all faces, all paces" as their motto. Twice a month, the GRC Run Club meets at a small BIPOC- or female-owned business, such as a Latinx-owned artisanal soft-serve shop or a Brazilian coffee shop. After greeting everyone with hugs and high-fives, the crew takes off to jog anywhere from three to five miles, ensuring that no one runs alone or is left behind. "Afterward, we have a community kickback," explains Saldarriaga. "We wait for everyone to finish, clap everyone in, and kick it with one another" while enjoying refreshments from the local business, courtesy of Lululemon. (Notably, the GRC Run Club is Lululemon's first signed run crew in Illinois and the first Latinx-led crew sponsored by Lululemon in the U.S.)
While the run crew might seem separate from the food access work Grocery Run Club already does, Saldarriaga and Camarena view them as complementary solutions to making health more accessible."[The run club] was another platform for us to bring awareness to the nonprofit organization, another outlet for us to bring that to the forefront and get miles with our people and our community," says Saldarriaga. "Post-run is when we're able to answer questions and talk about what's coming up [for the nonprofit]." By leveraging both the run club and the nonprofit, the co-founders are better able to amplify the efforts of each. For example, the crew recently hosted a run and community clean-up at their original North Lawndale garden, where they planted the first fruits and veggies of the season. "We ran, we cleaned up, we gardened, and that was really great," he recalls. "We're working on bringing those two entities together little by little."
Plus, the pair points out that simply having a Latinx-led run crew in the first place is helping increase accessibility to wellness, especially in communities of color. "We host our runs around underserved and underprivileged communities, and people come out and are clapping us on when they see us," says Saldarriaga. "There are so many run clubs on the North Side [of Chicago]. But on the South Side, when you see a whole run club that's predominantly Latino and Black with an eclectic, diverse group of people — that brings attention in and of itself. It's that visual access of seeing people that look like you, that you might not see [running] all the time."
For many people, an approachable neighborhood run club is the first step on their health and wellness journey. "GRC Run Club is always visiting new Chicago neighborhoods," says Rosales. "Some of those neighborhoods may not experience movement or wellness that often. This is why we always want to help support those who live and move in those areas and also introduce wellness to those who may be interested and don't know where to start."
Since running is one of the more accessible forms of movement, it's especially well-suited to Grocery Run Club's mission. "Running is for everyone," adds Camarena. "[It's one of the] activities we can all do to be healthier. Yes, [Grocery Run Club] provides food and everyday necessities, but we want to change the trajectory of people's lives through education on a healthier lifestyle — and so much of that has to do with access."
In the two years that Grocery Run Club has existed, they've grown fromtwo "rogue plots of land," as Camarena puts it, to a full-fledged garden built at the hands of a design team, an urban farmer, and a professional crop plan. "It was the first time some people have seen [food actually growing]," says Camarena. "Children in the [North Lawndale] neighborhood are able to come and see things grow — I watched a 10-year-old eat a tomato for the first time." For that community to have a neighborhood garden helps change the pattern of how its residents eat, giving them the resources necessary to better prioritize their health and wellness.
GRC Run Club also regularly hosts community give-back runs. "Last year's Dia De Los Muertos run was [an a-ha] moment for me," says Rosales. "For every four runners that ran with us, GRC was going to sponsor a week's worth of groceries for a family [in Pilsen, an underserved neighborhood on Chicago's South Side]. I was blown away when we had close to 100 runners show up to run through the Pilsen streets with us and help these families. It really reminded me that this was bigger than just running," she adds.
And as proud Chicagoans, Camarena and Saldarriaga are committed to long-term grassroots organization. "When Lucy and I started [Grocery Run Club], we were committed to this not being a Covid-only initiative," says Saldarriaga. "We're born and raised Chicagoans, and we're committed to making Chicago better" beyond the pandemic.
This long-term approach to community change is also reflected in the mission of the GRC Run Club. "Change doesn't come overnight, it comes with commitment and longevity," he points out. "That speaks to running too, right? A commitment to miles, a commitment to training… there's a lot more to do, a lot more people to impact, a lot more projects we were to share out. We're going to show up for our communities for a long time, so people can see that we're committed to developing and helping each other out."
Similarly, they hope that GRC Run Club can carve a path for other run crews and health-related nonprofits led by people of color. "We don't want to be the only [sponsored, Latino-led run club in the U.S.]," says Camarena. "So how is what we're doing with GRC Run Club empowering people to go for it? Let's pave the way a little bit so that everyone follows along and we build a better city."