Guidance on Opening Food Pantries

The City of Chicago is committed to eliminating barriers to opening new community food pantries, especially in neighborhoods with high food insecurity rates. The guidance on this webpage is intended to assist new pantry operators in navigating zoning, permitting, and licensing processes when looking to open a new food pantry.

NOTE: All sections listed refer to the Chicago Municipal Code.

The Problem

Chicago must make structural changes to ensure every Chicagoan has access to healthy, affordable food and that food becomes an engine for community wealth building. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community members and, particularly, neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, do not have sufficient access to healthy food and experience disproportionately worse health outcomes, including life expectancy, compared to white Chicagoans.

Recognizing the importance of addressing hunger and the urgency of opening new food pantries, the City will prioritize streamlining food pantry expansions in the near term through clarifying related zoning, permitting and licensing processes.


Zoning Guidance for New Food Pantries

For zoning opinions and depending on the scope of uses, the DPD Bureau of Zoning  could classify food pantries as “Food and Beverage Retail Sales” (Section 17-17-0104-O). This classification is permitted by-right in all business (B) and commercial (C) zoning districts, plus certain downtown (D), manufacturing (M) and planned manufacturing (PMD) districts, with limitations. To review a full listing of all qualifying zones and restrictions, visit this guide. To look up the zoning district for a given address, visit this tool.

In certain cases, the DPD Bureau of Zoning could consider the following services as “accessory” to the above classification:

  • Public Benefit Outreach
  • Health & Nutrition Education
  • Employment Training & Support
  • Efforts Addressing the Root Causes of Food Insecurity

Food pantries typically conduct these services in subordination of area, extent, and purpose to food distribution. Thus, they could be allowable by-right as permitted accessory uses, pursuant to Section 17-9-0200.

For a formal letter of opinion from the DPD Bureau of Zoning, please contact the Zoning Administrator and provide information about your intended use. This should include:

  1. Services offered
  2. Square footage for each use
  3. Number of individuals served

Depending on the those details, more information or follow-up discussions may be necessary.

Licensing Guidance for New Food Pantries 

Most businesses operating in the City of Chicago require a City of Chicago business license issued by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP). This site explains a bit more about that process, and this site details the application requirements. 

However, pursuant to Municipal Code of Chicago Section 4-8-010, the City categorizes food pantries as “Charitable food dispensing establishments,” which  are exempt from the “retail food establishment” license requirement (Section 4-8-020(l)) if they meet three criteria: 

  1. Not-for-Profit Entity
  2. Fixed Location
  3. Not Charging for Food 

This exemption means food pantries would not need to pay for and obtain the business license that a commercial business would typically need to acquire.

Permitting Guidance for New Food Pantries

The permitting needs for food pantries vary greatly depending on the given project. A permit is generally required before beginning new construction, repairs, additions, alterations, or demolition projects. General information about permitting can be found on the Chicago Department of Building’s permit website

  • How do I know if I need a permit?
    • There are some instances where you will not need a building permit. A list of circumstances that do not require a building permit can be found on this site
  • What do I do if I do need a permit?
    • If the food pantry does require a building permit, this guide provides a high-level overview of the building permitting process in the City of Chicago.
      • Examples of when a food pantry may need a building permit include:
        • Moving a wall
        • Adding an addition to the space
        • Adding stairs or a fence
    • Generally speaking, there are three different types of building/construction permits that may be needed on commercial projects: 
    • Permit application forms can be found on this site

Pantry operators could also use a Permit Expediter, which is a consultant who manages the permit application process on behalf of an owner. Expediters may have experience navigating the permitting process or completing required paperwork, which can pantries in the process, but they usually require a fee for this service