Fresh produce from the Farm on Ogden in Chicago helps provide food to the neighborhood. Photo from Chicago Botanic Garden website  

The Evanston Public Library has partnered with Meals at Home, a meal delivery service that supports the homebound, the elderly, the disabled and others unable to care for their nutritional needs, to present a series of events addressing the issue of food insecurity in Evanston.

 In the third installment of the four-part series, speakers highlighted ways in which communities around the country have addressed hunger issues and discussed what the Evanston community might be able to take away from these models.

The presentation featured three speakers:

Robert Egger, a nationally known author, activist and leader in the campaign against hunger. Mr. Egger is the founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, “community kitchens” that collect leftover food from hospitality businesses and farms, and use it to fuel culinary job training programs that provide meals to local service agencies;

Alan Shannon, Public Affairs Director for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services and a leader in the creation and facilitation of GoodGreens, a network of over 1300 organizations and individuals from the Midwest who have an interest in building and supporting local food systems; and Debi Genthe, Executive Director at Meals at Home, who prior to her work with Meals at Home served as Executive Director and President of Interfaith Caregivers of Washington County, Wis., a not-for-profit network of volunteers that served more than 1,200 seniors annually with transportation and access to food. 

Mr. Egger, who addressed the audience of approximately 30 Evanston community members by video-conference from his current home base in Los Angeles, emphasized the importance of looking outside the box for answers to the hunger crisis.

“Sometimes the answers are right in front of you,” he said. “Sometimes we have done things one way for so long, it requires a lot of creative thinking to see it differently.”

That is exactly what Mr. Egger did when he created the model for D.C Central Kitchen nearly 30 years ago. The old model of collecting donated food, preparing it in one place and delivering it to another place to be distributed to those in need, does little to address the root cause of hunger, he said.

“We thought, ‘Let’s take the food that goes to waste, the kitchens that are underutilized, the volunteers who want to be a part of something powerful and job train those who are stuck in a cycle of poverty and are hungry to be a part of the solution.’”

Today, Mr. Egger spends a lot of his time thinking about the future. As the baby boomer generation ages, there will be more elderly people in need of support, and as the food industry becomes more efficient, there will be less food waste and consequently less donated food to go around.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to re-imagine and re-engage,” he added. 

Mr. Egger visualizes communities growing more of their own food, doctors and healthcare workers trained in nutrition, vegetable gardens in hospitals, school children growing food for seniors in their own communities, and robust training programs for individuals looking for a way out of the cycle of poverty. 

“It is less about building something new and more about utilizing what already exists within the community to jumpstart its economy,” he said.

Mr. Shannon highlighted several unique programs across the country that do just that, including one project that recently opened in the Chicagoland area.

The Farm on Ogden is a collaboration of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program and the Lawndale Christian Health Center. The partnership works to bring food, health and jobs together in one location.

The 20,0000-square-foot urban agriculture facility, located in the North Lawndale neighborhood, aims to train youth and ex-offenders in farming, food safety, cooking and nutrition while also providing fresh produce to the neighborhood that data show has some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Chicago.

The Farm will also provide produce to patients at the Lawndale Christian Health Center through the Veggie Rx Program, which allows doctors to prescribe healthy foods for diet-related conditions.

“When patients come into the Health Center, they are handed a box of vegetables,” Mr. Shannon said. 

Ms. Genthe said she is inspired by the innovative ideas that are popping up around the nation and   expressed the need for Meals at Home to address the changing times. 

“After 50 years serving the North Shore, we are at a pivotal point,” she said. “Do we want to continue with the model that we’ve used for the past 50 years, or do we want to really address the issue of hunger? Who can we collaborate with in our own community? What lessons have we learned from other successful programs? What can we recreate with an eye on what we expect to happen in the next five to 10 years?”

Ms. Genthe is optimistic and believes there are many possibilities for addressing food insecurity in Evanston.

“There are a lot of ways we can collaborate with other groups in Evanston,” she said.  “It is very exciting, and we hope the community will stay with us and continue to be engaged and energized.”

Anne Bodine, Community News Editor, has been a part of The Evanston RoundTable since 2008 as a reporter covering businesses and institutions; arts and entertainment; and health and wellness. More recently,...