Thursday, October 21, 2010

Congratulations, Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduates!

Family, friends and Greater Chicago Food Depository staff gathered at the Food Depository’s Southwest Side training and distribution center to celebrate the newest Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduates at the Autumn 2010 Graduation Ceremony on October 15. As the culmination of the 14-week foodservice training program, 15 students were honored for their hard work and successful competition of the program.

Graduates overcame early mornings, long commutes—not to mention working on their feet all day in a hot kitchen—to receive their graduation certificates Friday. With the support and encouragement of friends and family, the graduates worked to better themselves while preparing wholesome meals for hungry Chicagoans. During their time in the program, graduates helped to prepare 253,303 meals from scratch, for children and older adults at Food Depository member agencies throughout Cook County.

Event speakers included two outstanding student representatives, Stella Topps and Loren Brown, and Chicago’s Community Kitchens alumni Hector Vergara, who has worked at Chef Mindy Segal’s award-winning Mindy’s Hot Chocolate Restaurant
& Dessert Bar since his graduation a year ago. Festivities concluded with a delicious lunch prepared by current Chicago’s Community Kitchens students and staff. A mouth-watering menu included: ancho chile flank steak, seafood cioppino, roasted squash, delicious salads and freshly baked breads and desserts.

Congratulations to the Autumn 2010 Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduates:
Octavius Barlow, Deborah Borras, Loren Brown, Donell Cline, Carlos Gonzalez, Richard Johnston, Latrice Lee, Shanisha Madison, Jennifer Phillips, Nick Ross, Gita Thomas, Norman Thomas, Estelle Topps, Guadalupe Vavalle and Marquis Wilson.

Check out photos from the graduation ceremony in the Food Depository’s Flickr pool:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Making Music Matter

For the second straight year, the Food Depository benefited from Charter One’s summer-long Making Music Matter initiative. And, for the second straight year, I volunteered at one of the concerts at Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island.

This year’s concert series was meant to raise awareness and funds for our Mobile Programs, of which Charter One, through a donation by the Charter One Foundation, is the Lead Corporate Supporter.

I volunteered for one of the first of the 17 concerts this summer: 311 and The Offspring. This concert also had a food drive component, where concertgoers were urged to bring canned food donations into the show and donate at the Charter One tent. The person who donated the most got a prize pack of 311-signed memorabilia.

I admit, I was a little glass-half-empty on the food donations we would get during the show because we were a little behind spreading the word. But 311 and Offspring fans proved me wrong. The winner brought in more than 120 pounds of food. In this case, I don’t mind being wrong.

The only bad thing about Making Music Matter was that I couldn’t volunteer for more of the concerts. I’m still kicking myself for not volunteering for the Stone Temple Pilots concert.

At the conclusion of the series, which ended a few weeks ago, concert goers helped raise more than $12,000, with the Zac Brown Band concert bringing in a series-record for donations raised (nearly $950).

Keep up with Making Music Matter all year on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chicago's Community Kitchens featured on ChefBites.TV

A few weeks ago, the Greater Chicago Food Depository was contacted by the Chicago-based Cimaglia Productions about an opportunity to participate in its new ChefBites.TV Web video project. The focus of the short video vignette would be the Food Depository’s Chicago’s Community Kitchens program—specifically the production and delivery of heat-and-serve Healthy Helpings meals to local older adults. We were thrilled with the opportunity and could not wait to get started. Filming began at the Food Depository as Chicago’s Community Kitchens staff and students prepared the Healthy Helpings meals from scratch—including curry-seasoned chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables and pumpkin spice muffins. Properly-sized portions were arranged in single-serving biodegradable trays, sealed and flash-frozen for freshness. With the meals packaged, we were ready to head out into the community. Marillac House, a Food Depository member agency, invited the ChefBites.TV crew and me to shadow a few Healthy Helpings deliveries to home-bound older adults on the West Side.

Sister Mary Rita McSweeney heads up Marillac’s older adult program and delivers meals to 50 seniors each month. Serving the low-income communities on the West Side, Sister Mary Rita has seen how the Healthy Helpings meals impact her clients.

“To them, it's such a big thing that they don't have to worry about cooking,” Sister Mary Rita said of the meals, which are easily prepared in minutes by microwave or conventional oven. “They are wonderful meals that [clients] know are good for them. To hear their gratitude and excitement—I have the best job at Marillac.”

Our first stop of the day was the home of two sisters, Minnie Moore, 91, and Carrie Lewis, 94 (pictured above). For these sisters, the Healthy Helpings meals have fit seamlessly into their daily routine, while providing wholesome food they need. “When I don't want to cook for lunch I can put this right in the oven—I don't have to worry about seasoning,” Minnie said. “It's a blessing.”

Visit ChefBites.TV online or follow @chefbitesTV on Twitter to keep up with the crew’s latest adventures. Be sure to check back here and at to see the finished video in the coming weeks!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting Connected with our mission

It's kind of weird when people thank me personally for helping to feed hungry people in Chicago. After all, I work on the Internet most hours of the day. Sure, I help share our mission and help bring in funds, but I don’t have any illusions that the Internet itself can steer a truck into our loading dock or give a bag of groceries to someone. I don't witness people struggling with hunger, struggling to make the tough decision of rent or food this week. Our member food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens—as well as those working in our warehouse—witness this every day.

That's why we have a program here called Get Connected, to help get out from behind our desks and experience what goes into hunger relief.

I worked the “Salvage” line recently, just one of the many tasks offered through the Get Connected program. The Salvage area is where all the food collected from food drives comes in, is sorted by quality and expiration, repacked and then distributed to our member agencies.

Heading into this time of year, the food drives start to add up (more than 500 will have been hosted from now through the end of this year). That’s a lot of food to go through, and I’m happy to pitch in. But it can be quite the task.

A conveyor belt whisks by with everything from canned baked beans and boxes of pasta to jars of pickles and juice boxes. I happened to be on tomato sauce/paste and canned vegetables that day. Thankfully, the items going past me have already been inspected for quality and expiration date, otherwise, this task would be nearly impossible. It was three hours of standing, sorting and lugging 40-pound boxes of canned food onto another conveyor.

Your back and legs can’t help but be a bit sore after the job, but being able to get my hands dirty, get in there and do a little manual labor, it’s worth it. I’m working with the food that our community donated so others less fortunate can have something to eat today. That's not something to take lightly.

I’m writing this a few days removed from Getting Connected, and thinking back, having a sore back from helping feed hungry people—well, that actually feels pretty good.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pantry's efforts gain notice in Tinley Park

There are so many people across Cook County who do everything they can to fight hunger in their communities. Most are volunteers, and most of their efforts go unnoticed. That's why it was so gratifying to see a story this week in the Southtown Star about the Tinley Park Food Pantry, a member agency of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

I had the opportunity to visit the pantry on a cold March day in 2007. I remember it well because of the enthusiasm of its volunteers and its location in the relatively affluent suburb of Tinley Park. (I didn't have my digital camera with me that day, so you'll see that the picture above was taken with a film camera.) The pantry also had a clever means for getting food into its church basement location--a chute that delivered cartons through a converted window.

The Southtown Star story is also notable because of the involvement of a community garden that is donating fruit and vegetables to the pantry. Fresh, local produce is a key part of the Food Depository's new Strategic Plan, Growing the Field. Many pantries already are teaming up with urban agriculture initiatives, and the Food Depository plans to further tap into local growing in years to come. We've always distributed fresh produce, but we will be redoubling our efforts so that Chicagoans receive healthier food.

Awareness is half the battle in what we do. We plan to continue to chronicle these often overlooked stories on the blog in months ahead.

Chicago’s Community Kitchens provides early-morning inspiration

At 7:30 a.m. the Greater Chicago Food Depository already is a bustling place. Students in the Chicago’s Community Kitchens program—the Food Depository’s free foodservice training program for unemployed and underemployed adults—are already hard at work preparing meals for Food Depository sites throughout Cook County. I stopped by the kitchen to see what students were cooking up.

On the menu this morning was a curry chicken breast over roasted sweet potatoes, paired with a side of cauliflower and broccoli with a pumpkin-spice muffin for dessert. These meals—prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients—will be packaged as individual heat-and-serve meals that are delivered to older adult residences and member food pantries for distribution.

Donna McCamley is working on chopping the broccoli for this meal. Donna, 50, is in her eighth week of the 14-week program and cannot believe how quickly the past two months have passed. “It’s going by really fast,” she said. “But I love it, I really do.”

Donna has an infectious smile and happily chats with me about her favorite Chicago’s Community Kitchens recipe (chicken and rice with foccatia bread) and her future plans (owning her own organic restaurant on the West Side, a food desert that lacks healthy food options). So, I’m not completely surprised when Donna tells me she learned about the program in the most unlikely of places: a CTA bus. One day, carrying a cake she decorated herself, Donna struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who happened to have a sister who recently graduated from the Chicago’s Community Kitchens program. The friendly stranger encouraged Donna to check it out.

During a time when so many Cook County residents are struggling to make ends meet, it is inspiring to hear how Chicagoans continue to look out for one another, and to see Donna going after her goal with such enthusiasm. With partners like Donna, we can end hunger in our community.

Learn more about the Chicago's Community Kitchens program at