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Free meals on menu, from pantries to schools

Providing food for those who would otherwise go hungry seems to be on everyone’s mind during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving turkeys to Hanukkah briskets and on through to Christmas hams.

But agencies and programs that feed the needy undertake a year-round pursuit that continues as the New Year dawns and beyond.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Sights like this aren't necessarily common in middle-school cafeterias, but Perspectives has put fresh vegetables and fruits front and center this school year.

Through NCP, Elev8 and other efforts, LISC/Chicago has supported food distribution networks, social entrepreneurialism around food, and school-based efforts to improve nutrition for students on free or reduced lunch.

“Many of us remember to help the hungry at the holidays, but people have to eat all year round,” says Chris Brown, LISC/Chicago’s director of education programs. “Having access to food—especially high quality food—is essential to health and well-being.”

This is the second in an occasional series of articles about food-related efforts supported by LISC/Chicago. To see the first, about farmers’ markets, gardening and urban agriculture, please click here.

Families line up for food
At the Logan Square location of Christopher House, a social service agency based in Lincoln Park that provides preschool, after-school and adult education programming, families line up twice per month to collect their allotment of everything from canned goods, to fresh produce, to meats.

Photo: Ed Finkel

In addition to canned goods, the pantry provides fresh produce and meats through bulk discounts from Aldi.

“There are families lined up down the hall,” says Lori Baas, chief executive officer of Christopher House, which has locations in five communities and has been a key partner to the NCP planning process led by Logan Square Neighborhood Association in that community. “There’s been a great increase over the last couple of years. That’s just a sign of the economic times.”

According to internal surveys, 99 percent of families who use the food pantry at Christopher House are low-income working families—not the unemployed or homeless—74 percent of whom say the pantry saves them at least $25 per week.

The food comes from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, local businesses like Panera Bread—hence the bevy of bagels on one early December day—and it’s supplemented with trips to the local Aldi, which provides bulk discounts, says Gloria Kuechenberg, director of family support services.

“We provide canned food, but we try to provide fresh fruits, vegetables, things like that because it’s really expensive for families to afford that,” she says. “In many of our families, the parents work as babysitters or doing house-cleaning. Some are in factories or retail stores. … These families are not making a lot of money. That’s why they’re in our program. They have these jobs, and not a lot of time.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

In addition to $28,000 to help fund a family support coordinator position, LISC/Chicago gave $40,000 to Christopher House for this mosaic on the building's exterior.

LISC/Chicago’s support of $28,000 (through NCP) helped pay the salary of a family support specialist who makes sure services are working as they should in Logan Square and to explore new opportunities for families.

For example, since so few parents have education beyond high school, Christopher House is now investigating partnerships with higher education institutions so they could pursue college degrees that could help expand their limited incomes.

Christopher House also runs periodic nutrition workshops for families, Kuechenberg says. “They are concerned about health, and they are concerned about weight,” she says. “They want to learn about what to eat and what to avoid.”

Through NCP lead agency Teamwork Englewood, LISC/Chicago also has been supporting the Englewood Food Network, an alliance of 35 food distribution pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, in that Southwest Side community. Teamwork is directly involved in 17 of the pantries, including Beautiful Zion M.B. Church, to produce meals and feed more families, says Doris Jones, NCP director.

“Teamwork Englewood has supported us significantly over the years. Any resource they find to help our cause, they never hesitate to share it with us,” says Dennis Ware, executive director of the Food Network.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

NCP lead agency Teamwork Englewood has partnered with local churches to bring about healthy eating and healthy cooking.

LISC/Chicago has funded the M.E.N.U. (meeting eating needs unmet) program, which Ware says is “dedicated to educating the community on nutritious ways to prepare the food given at our locations. The recipes are sent to all of our partners to be distributed throughout the community. Along with the M.E.N.U. program, we have compiled the recipes and created the Englewood Food Network Cookbook,” also supported by LISC.

The Food Network and Teamwork have partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and New Faith Baptist Church in south suburban Matteson, through the NCP Health, Food & Fitness Task Force, to ensure that fresh produce is available via food trucks (called the Produce Mobile program) that stop past the various pantries on a regular schedule, while also arranging for the pantries to purchase goods from the Englewood Farmers’ Market during the months it’s in season.

In 2011, the Englewood Food Network hopes to produce food through an urban agriculture program that makes use of Englewood’s 3,700 vacant lots, through a partnership with Growing Home, Ware says. This could create jobs for “hundreds of out of work households in the Englewood community,” he says.

For a longer story on Englewood Food Network and Teamwork Englewood’s involvement within it, please click here.

Inspiration for pantries and more
In East Garfield Park, this spring will see the opening of a new source of free meals provided through community partners like schools and faith-based organizations.

The launch of Inspiration Kitchens Garfield Park Cafe, the latest social entrepreneurship venture of Inspiration Corp., also will provide affordably priced sit-down meals for non-poor community members and an opportunity for the homeless and others in poverty to better themselves through job readiness and vocational training leading to entry-level jobs in the hospitality industry.

Photo: Courtesy Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance

Celebrating the groundbreaking for Inspiration Kitchens' new East Garfield Park location are founder Lisa Nigro, board chairman Steven Gross, Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance executive director Eunita Rushing, Ricardo Estrada of the City of Chicago, former board chair Mirriam Leichstein, and executive director and CEO John Pfeiffer.

Inspiration Corp. has put this multi-concept model into play already in Uptown, at Café Too, which has churned out nearly 400 graduates during the past decade who prepare and serve meals and learn the basics of the restaurant business.

This will be replicated at in East Garfield Park when the location opens at 3504 W. Lake St., which Inspiration Corp. expects will serve 7,000 meals in its first year, half of which will be provided for free.

LISC provided a $15,000 project support grant and provided early feedback on the business plan for this effort, says Marva Williams, senior program officer. NCP lead agency the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance will help distribute meal gift certificates that agencies like schools and religious congregations can use as engagement or incentive tools for their programs.

By late December, construction on the building was mostly complete, equipment had been delivered, several top positions had been filled, and Inspiration Corp. was giving tours of the new space, available by calling (773) 878-0981 x205 (for Margaret) or x244 (for Eric).

Still yet to come was dining room furniture, the hiring of chef instructors and hourly positions like cook, servers and dishwashers, and needed visits from city inspectors.

Please click to see previous articles on the East Garfield Café and on Café Too.

Schools provide nutritious meals, snacks
The five middle schools participating in LISC/Chicago’s Elev8 program have been making extra efforts to provide healthier food for the children of some of the same sorts of low-income working families who also seek help from the pantries.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Students file into the newly renamed Crossroads Cafe, a/k/a the cafeteria, to pick up their lunches of Caribbean chicken, brown rice and carrots.

Lunchtime at Perspectives Calumet Charter School in Auburn Gresham has taken on a new flavor this school year with the advent of the Crossroads Café, where students enjoy healthier entrees, daily salads, and offerings like bran rice and quinoa that they may never have heard of, much less eaten.

Almost all students at Perspectives are on free or reduced lunch, says Tenisha Jones, Elev8 director at the school. They also eat breakfast in class—typically heavy on grains, oats and milk—as well as a snack in the extended-day programs that features items like veggie chips and Nutri Grain bars, she says. The school even participates in First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Go for the Gold” nutrition program.

A $15,000 grant from Elev8 helped pay the added cost of this nutritious goodness, Jones says, surrounded by students gathered to enjoy the day’s lunch of Caribbean chicken, brown rice and carrots, along with the daily salad. And during the extended-day program, Sodexo chef Sharee Williams gardens out back with the students and teaches them how to make some of these healthy meals at home.

“We teach them about portions,” Williams says. “We teach them life skills, like menu-scaling—if the recipe says [it makes] 25 servings, I say, ‘How do you increase it to 75?’ They learn to eat a whole lot of foods they’re not used to.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

"I like that it's natural food," says Ra-Shun Thurmond, a seventh-grader at Perspectives. "Sometimes at my old school, it tasted kind of frozen."

“This food is better because it’s healthy,” says Khalil Ryals, a seventh-grader at the school. “We get salad bars. … At my old school, I used to eat chips and all kinds of junk food. Here, they give you a nice breakfast. They show they care about us and what we eat.”

Ra-Shun Thurmond, a seventh-grader, remembers seeing the food truck back into his old school one day. “It was these pre-made raviolis and bread sticks. They just heated them up and gave them to us,” he says. “I like that it’s natural food here. They always provide fresh fruits, and they give us water at lunch.”

Other Elev8 schools are working to educate their students about healthy-food concepts after school. For example, Reavis Elementary School in Quad Communities, which provides universal breakfast in addition to lunch and a third-meal option, has an after-school activity for girls called, “Strong Bodies, Healthy Minds.”

“It teaches them how they can make a difference in what they eat,” says Syda Segovia-Taylor, Elev8 director for the school. Elev8 program manager Jenny Delessio-Parson “teaches them how to cook different recipes. She’s exposed them to green juice, and healthy granola snacks. They’re reading a book about the food industry, how animals are treated, and the effects of that on the meat. They’re learning about preservatives and additives, and how food gets manipulated.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

At Reavis Elementary, six girls participating in the after-school activity called "Strong Bodies, Healthy Minds" get ready to dig into the granola snack they baked that combines peanut butter, honey, puffed rice, dried fruit, walnuts and carob chips.

Delessio-Parson says she’s impressed by how adventurous the students are in trying different foods—and how knowledgeable and curious they are about the larger issues involved.

“Somebody brought up ‘food deserts’ all by themselves,” she says. “My goal is to introduce them to different kinds of food, to explain different cooking steps and skills, but also to get them thinking about food justice.”

On one December day, six girls in “Strong Bodies” enjoyed the fruits, nuts and other byproducts of their labor in making granola snacks that included peanut butter, honey, puffed rice, dried fruit, walnut and carob chips. One recalled making black-bean burgers at home for dinner.

“My mother was like, ‘What is this?’ ” laughs Tamia Jones, a seventh-grader. “I cooked it for her. She liked it, but she didn’t like it that much.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

The entire school at Reavis participates in monthly "health challenges" that focused on water in December, says Syda Segovia-Taylor, Elev8 director.

Deanna James, a seventh-grader, says the activity has taught her how to eat more healthily—guzzling fruit smoothies, for example, rather than milkshakes. “You can eat fast food once in awhile, but not every day,” she says.

“We’re always telling students, ‘Take a look at what you’re putting in your body,’ ” Segovia-Taylor says. “We’re trying to get them to read the labels.”

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