Industrial Harvest


Care for Real by sarah kavage
Been a few weeks, eh?  Beware – once you get back to the northwest time just starts slipping away again.  This post has been slow going. I’ve been consumed by trying to re-enter into Seattle life.  Work.  Friends, cat, husband.  So many birthdays (including mine).  A freezing cold apartment.  All compounded by the considerable motivational wallop that a northwest winter always brings.  I’ve been persisting, though and slowly, slowly working my way through a few last reports of my time in Chicago. 

So without further ado:  the final flour donation in Chicago was to Care For Real, a food pantry in Edgewater.  Edgewater was home base during my stay in Chicago, and it was good to me.  Well-treed, not too gentrified with a wide variety of buildings and residents (many of them immigrants or refugees), Edgewater is tucked away by the lake on Chicago’s far north side.  True, it’s less convenient to get to most other places in the city, but it’s also a refuge from the rest of the city.  I described it to husband Rob as “the Brooklyn of Chicago” and when he came to visit he agreed.

I wanted to give back to my home away from home, and it seemed appropriate that the donation to Care For Real was the last one.  I was introduced to Care For Real and its director Tom Robb by Ernie Constantino, who works for 48th ward Alder(wo)man Mary Ann Smith (for readers who are not from Chicago, the 48th ward includes Edgewater; an Alderman is similar to a city councilperson).  The pantry is run out of a tiny storefront in the 6000 block of North Broadway.  Care For Real, like all the food banks and pantries I have talked to, is bursting at the seams trying to serve the ever-growing numbers of clients in need.  When I asked Tom how much flour he wanted, he said, laughing, “I might freak out if it’s over 700 pounds.”  When I arrived, I understood his reply.  There was a front room where the clients signed in and picked up food; it contained a packed waiting area of about 20 chairs, a small school desk and several tables overflowing with food donations from the big grocery stores that are practically right across the street.  In back was a couple of offices and a maze of racks, cabinets and refrigerators all crammed into a space maybe 20 by 40 feet, maybe not even that much.  Here is what part of it looks like:

backstage at Care For Real

backstage at Care For Real

Mary Ann Smith also showed up for a little meet & greet and to pose for some photos on her way to another meeting.  Here we are “unloading the van” (which basically means that Nate and a few volunteers did most of the unloading and we all stood around and got in the way of everyone trying to do actual work and took pictures of it).

Unloading at Care For Real:  Sarah, Nate, Mary Ann 

Unloading at Care For Real: Sarah, Nate, Mary Ann

There was just barely room for the flour in the storage racks.  Fred, who volunteers weekly, was both strong and nimble enough to maneuver 14 bags of flour into place on the shelves.  I was a little worried about the lack of refrigerated space for the whole wheat pastry flour, but with the holidays coming up, the staff assured me that it would not sit for long.

Fred, stocking with a smile

Fred, stocking with a smile



St. Columbanus by sarah kavage

Every Wednesday, at around the same time the traders are headed down to LaSalle & Jackson, hungry folks are lining up at St. Columbanus church in West Woodlawn for their weekly food pantry.  Food distribution starts at 10 a.m., and people stand in line for several hours or more to make sure they get a spot in line in order to receive one of the 500 bags of produce and dry goods.  When the food pantry at St. Columbanus started 5 years ago, they served about 50 people a week.  When the economy crashed in 2008, they saw a spike in the number of people seeking help, and reached 500 people in February of 2009.  At this point, 500 people a week is their limit – although they sometimes do serve a few more if they have extra food.  “It’s hard to turn people away,” their director, LaVerne Morris told me.  Although their dedicated volunteer crew shows up at 6 a.m., there’s only so much you can do with volunteers before people burn out.

LaVerne signed up for a bulk donation of 2500 pounds of flour – enough for 5 pounds per food bank client.  She had extra volunteers come in to bag up the flour the night before the distribution, and, wanting to see their operation in action, I offered to come down and pitch in for a few hours.  6 a.m. was a little too early, as I’ve been keeping late nights working, so I showed up at 9 like a real Seattle slacker and LaVerne put me to work on the “assembly line” for the produce bags.

When you’re serving 500 people, you’ve got to be or-gan-ized, and LaVerne and her crew had things tight.  One set of volunteers walked around with bags open, collecting the produce that the other set of volunteers dropped into the bags.  I got a plum duty (couldn’t resist that one), working with Jerome over a giant box.  Each bag got 4 plums.  Or maybe 6, if the ones you picked up were small.  Or 8, if Jerome and I happened to each put in a handful.  Or a dozen, if you were feeling like there were so many that you’d never reach the bottom before the bags ran out.  Or 4, if suddenly the plums all disappeared and there were still bags to fill.  Jerome, who has been a St. Columbanus volunteer for 4 years now, was a great ambassador and a friendly guy, telling me that he the feeling that he gets from working at the food pantry is “like nothing else.  It just makes you feel so good, helping people like this.”
The bags contained plums, carrots, potatoes, watermelons, meats and cheeses, and a bunch of other fresh veggies that I didn’t get to see because I had my head down in the plum box.  Clients also got separate boxes of dry goods.
At just after 10 a.m., we were ready and LaVerne began directing the crew to their stations for the distribution.  I was put inside the “glass house,” where the clients register, so that I could hand out the flour.
The lineup for the food bank stretched around the block.  People had brought folding chairs like they were lining up for concert tickets – it’s either that or stand up for 4 hours (or sleep in and risk missing out entirely).  Slowly, the line worked its way through the glass house and back outside to the food distribution area on the other side of the church.  Troy and Dee greeted the clients and directed them from one place to the next.  People were polite and mostly subdued, but not quite downtrodden – more like maintaining in the face of what must be so many challenges.  Some were styled out, some didn’t seem to have a roof over their head.  A few were obviously embarrassed to be in such a situation, others seemed downright used to it.  I wondered which was worse – feeling humiliated, or being so used to getting handouts that it becomes the status quo.  In a conversation with a friend later that day, we talked about how food banks are this huge band-aid for so many of the structural inequities in our society.  Although I would never describe St. Columbanus as anything other than amazing and positive, because the root causes of hunger in our communities never really get addressed in a serious way, food banks become institutions that feed (literally) the dis-empowerment of entire communities.

PS:  a reminder that TUESDAY (tomorrow) NIGHT it’ll be time for COMMODITIES TRADING 101 at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood in Rogers Park, 7-9 pm.  If you want to understand the commodity / Board of Trade system, this is your chance to get the lowdown with two longtime brokers.  Paul Maggio and Russ Rsezsutko have 50 years of experience between the two of them, and will able about how futures trading works, the history of the CBOT, recent changes there, and how what happens on the trading floor impacts eaters, farmers and real food.  We’ll have a PIT tournament afterwards, so get ready to unleash your inner capitalist.  See the rest of the schedule for my remaining week at Mess Hall here