Coronavirus in Chicago: United Center packed with 77,840 pounds of food

Instead of an ice rink or basketball court, the floor of the United Center is currently packed from end to end with nearly 2,600 boxes of food.

As of Thursday, a whopping 77,840 pounds of rice, beans, pasta, tuna, tomato sauce, peanut butter, canned vegetables and other non-perishable items filled every inch of the normal playing surface.

The result is a stunning photo exemplifying the 21,000-seat arena’s abrupt transformation from sporting venue — in a coronavirus-free alternate reality, it would have been prepped for the scheduled Bulls-Nets game on Saturday — to pandemic logistics hub.

The food has been relocated to free up space in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s main warehouse, according to GCFD senior manager Greg Trotter.

“They’ve been piling up in our warehouse, and they are going into our network, but we’re trying to store some, too,” Trotter said. “We have a feeling that things are going to become significantly worse, in terms of food insecurity, in the weeks to come.”

Roughly two-thirds of the GCFD’s network of food pantries remain open, but they have shifted to a ‘grab-and-go’ format where food-insecure families simply pick up prepackaged boxes or bags, instead of the pre-pandemic method of shopping for the specific kinds of food they wanted.

That’s not the only effect that social distancing guidelines have had on the food depository, either. In the warehouse — located in Archer Heights on the southwest side of the city — volunteers who pack such bags and boxes must now be spaced out more, meaning there’s less room to store food.

And that’s where the United Center comes in.

The first loads of boxes were moved onto the United Center floor in late March.Courtesy of Greater Chicago Food Depository

Trotter said that while the number of coronavirus cases in Chicago may level off in the coming weeks, the depository expects the economic impact of the pandemic — and, specifically, the number of Chicagoans in need of food — to last far longer.

“There’s still going to be a long tail on this crisis,” he said. “People who have been laid off or their income has taken a hit, they’re going to have to get their lives back. This is not something that’s going to be resolved anytime soon.”

“Our neighbors are going to need our help for a long time. We’re bracing for that reality.”