Food Charity
by Peter Zelchenko October 30, 2009

Well, here come the fundraisers, dinners, and holiday events. In other words, it's time for the national bacchanalia, where we gorge ourselves at restaurants and bars, at home and with friends, and at catered events. More often than not, all of the leftovers are dumped.

There have been few studies on food waste. The most authoritative estimates by the EPA and USDA have ranged from 30 million to 48 million tons a year, and almost all of that macerates in landfills. (Here's a good 2008 NYT roundup of the situation.)

That's 27 percent of all of the food we produce, about a pound a day for every U.S. citizen. And at the same time, there are people begging for food on the streets.

Still feeling hungry?

Most of us should be acutely aware of this, because we are living in the very affluent neighborhoods, and we are the very people, who are the most surrounded by this waste. Restaurants in our neighborhoods throw away tons of food at the end of each night. When a waiter asks, "Are you all done? Can I wrap that up for you?" we typically reply, "No, I'm good; you can just take it."

Our fancy supermarkets, whose inventory systems are out of control, throw away dumpsters filled with perfectly good edibles because a manufacturer's label instructs them to, even though they often are perfectly good for weeks or even months afterward.

Managers of fancy fundraisers regularly dump hundreds of pounds of elegant food, even when there are waiters and cooks drooling over them, afraid to ask to take some home. Even the little lunch meeting you went to last week may have had 20 extra Potbelly sandwiches from those who'd RSVP'ed but decided not to show up. Organizers of these events are tired and want to go home. Rather than find a loving stomach for the food, they toss it.

That 20 sandwiches is $80 worth of food if you were to buy it at Potbelly's. Just throwing it away.

Let's set aside for a moment the ugly question of whether it's not a sign of great decadence to allow food access like that. If you have a little time, don't you think you have an obligation to try to get that food to people who are hungry? Just because you aren't hungry anymore doesn't mean that there isn't someone who is, and even if everyone's fed tonight, that's no reason not to find a refrigerator or freezer to drop that into for tomorrow.

Americans are ashamed to do this for cultural reasons. Don't be. You're doing good work by walking up to the organizers and saying, "I really want to put that leftover food in my car and take it to a shelter I have in mind." Do this every time you see food wasting, and you will save tons of food, and comfort many people, in your lifetime.

Two weeks ago, Abraham's Cub Scout camping trip had rich Lincoln Park mommies and daddies braving the frost up at Chain O' Lakes State Park. (In a delicious twist of fate, I happen to share a den with Daley's top advisor, Mara Georges, and her very cool husband Michael Mutz. Needless to say, Mara's and my conversation stuck with the icy weather.)

Being from Lincoln Park, these boys are blessed with some of the best professional-volunteer cooking staff around, and we use field cooking gear that would make Robert Irvine salivate. For dinner, we served gallons of wonderful chili as well as a fantastic cassoulet, and breakfast was a smorgasbord of tons of scrambled eggs, piles of bacon, and mountains of pancakes, cold cereal, coffee with cream, and so on. No trail mix for these kids.

Abraham and I rescued lots of things from oblivion and were able to drop it off at the Pat Crowley House at 1537 W. Rosemont. (More on the Crowleys below.) Among the things we picked up were a quart of half-and-half; many loaves of bread and kaiser rolls; several pounds of cold cuts and cheese; about a gallon of coleslaw; several quarts of chili; condiments; and much more. It all was about to go into a trash barrel.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository on the Southwest Side has been working for years to develop mass-storage and food preparation systems to convert our would-be trash into a new bounty for the needy. They have an industrial kitchen upstairs where they train the underemployed in foodservice skills. I love volunteering in that kitchen. If you are an experienced cook, consider contacting Executive Chef Lisa Gershenson to put in a few hours a month. Tell her I sent you.

Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest) is the national clearinghouse for the food-rescue effort, and they have their own search tool, which shows that Chicago's GFCD collects over 57 million pounds of food a year. Wow. Food Not Bombs is a national effort, from the left, with hundreds of chapters. You're not hardcore (no, you're not hardcore) unless you live hardcore.

There is no lack of organizations scrambling for this food, only a lack of will on the part of everyday Americans like us to help them connect to it.

Here is a locator to help find agencies in the Greater Chicago Food Depository network where you can donate food. Here's a related list of places that not only can use the donations but also welcome volunteers. What are you doing Saturday evening?

Over the holiday seasons, I'm going to try to talk about the inspiration behind some of the charities that take food donations. This week I present Pat and Patty Crowley, the names behind the Pat Crowley House in West Edgewater. This is a small apartment building which used to be owned by Pat Crowley and which he donated to shelter about 15 needy women.

Pat Crowley House
1537 W. Rosemont (Edgewater)

Patrick Francis (Pat) Crowley and Patricia (Patty) Caron Crowley

The Young Catholic Worker movement had been developing in the 1930s in Europe. This movement promoted a life of active social justice inspired by the life of Christ, operating on the principle of "observe-judge-act." This influenced the Christian Family Movement, which sprouted from a small program of lawyer friends at Pat Crowley's law firm in Chicago, to his wife's friends, to 125,000 couples nationwide by the mid-1960s.

What a fascinating couple. Pat was a young attorney and their home was blessed with five daughters -- not enough for the Crowleys, who also had a constant flow of foster children. At one point, they were housing 14 foster children.

In the 1960s, they were invited by Pope John XXIII to be among three Catholic couples selected internationally to sit on a Vatican commission on birth control. Until then, the commission had only included doctors, priests, bishops, and so on. Needless to say, the Crowleys spoke for many Catholics who took exception to the church's conserative attitudes toward sex. In the changing world of the '60s, they "were outspoken on the subject," advocating for greater liberalism in the church's attitudes. According to a 2005 article in Catholic New Times, "it was the correspondence of anguished Catholics brought to the table by the Crowleys that tipped the scales in the commission's majority report advocating a change in the church's position on birth control."

"During a heated discussion, Marcelino Zalba, a Spanish Jesuit moral theologian on the commission, asked, "What then with the millions we have sent to hell" if the rules are relaxed? Patty immediately responded..."Fr. Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?" (From Patty's informative obit by Call To Action, another organization the Crowleys shepherded).

Patty and daughter, Benedictine Sister Patsy Crowley, were very involved in Deborah's Place, another important Chicago charity that helps homeless women. The Pat Crowley residence is located in West Edgewater, at 1537 Rosemont, and houses about 15 women who might otherwise be homeless. The food you bring them this season, or any season, will be very warmly appreciated.

Archive Index | Subscribe to The Party Line | Pete Home | Gapers Block Home

(c) 2003-2009, Peter Zelchenko and Gapers Block