Oprah Winfrey has long been known as a generous giver. From educating and nurturing young girls at her boarding school in South Africa to her $12 million donation to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, Lady O does philanthropy like no other. But during a Zoom call on Tuesday attended by ESSENCE, the media mogul choked up discussing her most recent act of kindness that’s helping to place meals on the tables of food-insecure families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation (OWCF) announced that the Mississippi native is providing $12 million in grant support to organizations helping underserved communities in what she considers her “home cities.” They include Nashville, Chicago, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Kosciusko, Mississippi. Part of the reason why she’s giving back in this way is because she wishes her younger self had someone to do it for her. 

Oprah Winfrey announces $12M donation for families in need
“I’m proud to be able to support the communities I have called home,” Winfrey said in a release announcing the donation. “These organizations are working tirelessly on the ground to help those hit the hardest by the pandemic, meeting people where they are and serving in ways needed most.”  

“If this had been the pandemic when I was a kid, I would have gone hungry,” shared Oprah, fighting back tears. “Because my mother wouldn’t have been able to get on that bus to go to the suburbs to clean White people’s houses and I would have gone hungry. So I’m trying to do for those kids who would have been me, for those families who would have been me, what I would have wanted someone to step up and do.”

Winfrey is stepping up with the help of partner organizations like Live Healthy Chicago, who, since the health outbreak, has provided wellness visits and care packages to thousands of families in predominantly Black and Brown communities. The collaboration between West Side United, Rush University Medical Center, the MAAFA Redemption Project, My Block My Hood My City and Forty Acres Fresh Market is also standing in the gap to ensure that food-insecure families and those living in food deserts are having their nutritional needs met. 

Before the start of the pandemic, ArcGIS, the geographic information system maintained by the Environmental Systems Research Institute, estimated that 1 in 7 families throughout Cook County would experience food insecurity in any given year. COVID-19 has exasperated the nationwide issue, forcing more families to turn to food banks to help them get through.

“It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do a food bank organization,” Winfrey says of the partnership. When laying the framework for her donation, she reached out to the Greater Chicago Food Depository based on a recommendation and was introduced to Forty Acres Fresh Market, which has for years been centered in the community, delivering healthy food options to families. 

“I’m trying to do for those kids who would have been me, for those families who would have been me, what I would have wanted someone to step up and do.”

—Oprah Winfrey

The WW spokeswoman says it was important for her to know what would be included in the bags going to those needing support, because, as she explains she wanted to ensure that they would be receiving “fresh lettuce, fresh apples, fresh fruit, and fresh produce.” She also appreciates that Forty Acres does it at a lower price range. “When talking to West Side United I asked them ‘how do we get fresh food to people? Is there a market or place within the community that can do that?’ And that’s what was recommended to me.” 

Forty Acres Fresh Market helps food-insecure families
Forty Acres Fresh Market was founded out of a need to provide affordable, fresh food options to the residents of Chicago. Oprah Winfrey has partnered with the organization to ensure food-insecure families have access to healthy foods. (Photo: Forty Acres Fresh Market)

Often a private giver, Winfrey is discussing this particular effort because she hopes to inspire others. She admits that she often looked at philanthropy as something that was broader in scale, like building schools in different parts of the world. But COVID-19 has shown her how impactful it can be to start on a small scale at home. In addition to the $12 million that she’s giving to food-insecure families, she’s also helped her own family members who are out of work at this time, with $15,000 donations. 

“This pandemic has changed the way I see my ability to be more hands-on philanthropically,” Winfrey reveals. She hopes her discovery will “encourage other people of means or not of means to give what you can where you can,” because, she says, “it’s going to be needed.”

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