In this series, youth poised to be Chicago’s future leaders (UCAN program participants and recent alumni) interview current Chicago leaders in their fields of interest.
How to fight hunger in Chicago and around the world. In this episode, Jade Wilkins, a budding activist in the fight against food insecurity (and a UCAN participant), interviews Nicole Robinson, Vice President of Community Impact at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. They discuss food insecurity, waste, hunger as a product of poverty and inequality, and hope – hope arising from a commitment to community.
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Jade Wilkins: Can you tell me a little bit about your role in the Chicago Food Depository and what you do here?
Nicole Robinson: I am the Vice President of what we call Community Impact at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and I lead all of our programs, workforce development, and public policy programs. At the food depository, we are committed to ending hunger. We are one of 200 food banks across the country who do this work and we service the greater Chicagoland area within Cook County.
There are about 800,000 people who show up at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters across our service area and we help connect them to food, to work. And we help mobilize the public and raise awareness so that we can do something about ending hunger. It’s all about connecting people to the resources that they need.
JW: That’s amazing. When I was here volunteering last year, I never would’ve noticed or imagined that the Greater Chicago Food Depository connects people to these different resources that allow them to get jobs as well as food.
NR: Thank you so much for volunteering at the food depository.
JW: Of course.
NR: Thank you for that observation about that work, but Jade, when you think about it, hunger is a symptom of poverty. And when you think about a place like Chicago, some of the key issues we deal with in Chicago are poverty, racial inequity, and violence in our city – and hunger intersects with all of those things. In our work, we take all of that into consideration. If we’re going to end hunger, it’s really important for us to think about the economic impact and how we connect people to employment.
One of the programs we have that does that is a culinary training program called Chicago’s Community Kitchens. It’s 14 weeks long, and people learn here in our kitchen and in our classroom about the technical skills you need to work in the food industry. Then they get placed in a permanent job. We’re really proud of that work.
JW: Wow. Why did you to join a nonprofit organization – specifically, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, working on humanitarian issues?
NR: I’d say two things. One, I’ve been here about three years and, prior to that, I worked in the food industry. But I’m also a kid of Chicago Southside. I love Chicago, and I’ve been to other places in the world that deal with food insecurity and malnutrition. Although it has been striking, there are neighborhoods right in my backyard where young people, families, older adults all struggle with getting connected to food.
When I was a kid, I received something called SNAP. It used to be called food stamps and it’s a federal nutrition program where families can go into the grocery store and get the food that they need when they don’t have enough. So I am very personally aware of what that need is and how important it is to do something about it.
I want things to get better, I want families and individuals, young people to reach their full potential – and good nutrition, healthy food, is a big part of that.
JW: I agree. My family was actually a part of that program at some time. We decided that we wanted to be more independent and not rely on government help by using SNAP or food stamps. That transition did make the situation a little bit worse for a short time. We’re still struggling, but it’s really good to make that transition and start developing that individuality. I really do understand that – and that’s where my passion for food waste and this issue stems from.
NR: I think your passion comes through on this issue for sure.
JW: Thank you. Can for-profit organizations be as helpful as nonprofit organizations?
NR: I think that, absolutely, corporations can be helpful in this effort, and we sometimes refer to them as public private partnerships, because nonprofits can’t do it alone. As an organization, we were actually designed to be an emergency resource for families, not their only source of food.Unfortunately, we’re in a state where people come to us more than we actually think they need to, and we would like to make sure they’re connected to programs like SNAP that can get them the resources that they need.
But corporations are some of our number one partners, because 30 to 40 percent of the food we receive is donated to the food depository. We receive it from grocery stores like Jewel, Osco, Mariano’s, Aldi.
Starbucks is one of our biggest partners, and they have something called Food Share. They sell food in their stores – salads, sandwiches, fruit, pastries, all sorts of things – and every single day, we have a team of drivers who go to Starbucks stores overnight and they pick up all the food that’s left over from the previous day. That food goes directly to shelters in the Chicagoland area that are serving people impacted by homelessness.
None of that food goes to waste – and it was their idea to create that program. Starbucks approached us about this partnership.
JW: That is incredible. I would’ve never imagined.
NR: Most people don’t know that. Starbucks knew that they were going to sell food in their stores, but what they didn’t want to see was their unsold food going to waste.
JW: I am curious about one thing. You mentioned that there are grocers that donate food to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. I was wondering, what percentage of that food that would otherwise be wasted in those grocery stores gets donated?
NR: I don’t have the exact percentage, Jade, but I’d say that a good chunk of it is not wasted. Similar to the Starbucks program, what happens is the store managers in those Jewel, Osco, or Mariano’s stores, at the end of each week, collect the food that’s not saleable but still good and they save it for us. Then, we have drivers who go to the different stores across the Cook County area and pick up that food. The intent is to get as much as possible.
JW: Right, what do you think happens to the remainder of that food if it is wasted – and why is it wasted?
NR: We try to get most of it, but what we also need to balance in the equation is that we’re putting trucks on the road to go get the food. So, for example, if there are only three sandwiches and you send a truck to get them…the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t really work.
But most times, we do get the food. And if we have partners with smaller quantities, those might go to pantry in their neighborhood. The pantry will partner with us and they will actually do the pickup of the food. I think we do our best to reduce the waste as much as possible – but it is about connecting families to the food, right?
JW: I recall there being an act that allows restaurants, grocers I believe, to be able to donate food.
NR: The Good Samaritan Act.
NR: You have done your research, Jade.
JW: I’ve delved really deep, I’m very passionate about this. I want to find a way to alter the policies that are causing all of this food waste. At my school, students have to pick up a certain amount of fruit or vegetables, and a lot of those students don’t eat that, so they end up throwing it away. I wanted to find a way other than going to collect it every day, something that’s more sustainable, something that can be carried on even after I leave Lane Tech.
NR: Did you mobilize students to collect the food that was going to waste?
JW: I did have a few people who were really interested in that. One student in particular saw me collecting food and they were inspired to do it as well. I’m unable to collect food during lunch because I have academic obligations. But, this one student goes around and collects the food in my absence, and he does it religiously. It’s amazing to see that. Honestly, when I saw that for the first time, I was almost moved to tears. Seeing someone else inspired by me inspired me some more.
NR: Right, that’s what mobilizing the public around an issue is – and you sound like a food justice champion. We need more people like you to do this work. Yes, we’re partnering with corporations and government, but we still need so many individual people to be involved in this issue.
JW: One of my main goals in life is to establish my own nonprofit organization, kind of like what we have here at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and I was wondering, what are the qualifications that you would need, or the qualities that make a successful nonprofit like this?
NR: There are two pieces to it. Part of it is that hunger has been around for a long time, and the food depository has been around for 40 years. We’ve been doing good work, but we know that there’s more to do — and we need to get at the root cause of some of these problems.
I think for someone like you who wants to start a nonprofit, you need to ask yourself, “What can I do differently?” And “What’s my niche?” What is the food depository missing, that’s not being done to serve the community? I think that’s a big opportunity for you. And part of it is just being curious, curious and listening to people in the community so you get a sense of what they really need so that you’re giving them the right solutions.
JW: Definitely. I really want to be more involved in the community and I see the community as a family – but it’s more like a divided family.
NR: That is part of the opportunity. How do we bring people together? A lot of times we talk at the food depository about going from transactional relationships to transformational. If we could just make our relationships at home, in the community, and at work transformational, we’d solve all the world’s problems.
In a world and in a city like Chicago, where there’s so much wealth, so much opportunity, I want to make sure that the opportunity is spread out, for everybody to reach their full potential, especially in the neighborhoods that today have the least.
JW: As we draw our interview to a close, I would really like to know, are there any role models in your life that have led you to become the person that you are today, involved in nonprofits such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository that work on issues like food insecurity and food waste?
NR: Sure. Actually, some non-famous people, like teachers in elementary school. Mr. Boyd. And teachers in high school, Carol Gehring.
I had everyday role models. My mom’s a role model for me. She was a single mom. My grandmother is a role model as well for me because she worked really hard. She was part of something called The Great Migration, and she came from Arkansas for a better life for her and her children.
All of those women inspire me in my life. But then there are so many great women leaders in the city of Chicago. One I think you might be interested in became the head of the World Food Program. She was the first African American woman to lead the World Food Program which works in over 75 countries around the world. She lives right here in Chicago. That’s definitely someone I look up to when I think about this world of anti-hunger work.
JW: Thank you so much for being with us today. It was really wonderful talking to you and learning more about the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
NR: It was my pleasure to meet you, Jade. You are phenomenal at what you do, and you’re smart. Mind if I get a hug?
JW: Of course!
NR: Thank you. Thank you for coming to the food depository to do this interview.