For me, hunger has always been a voluntary choice. I’ll forget my lunchbag on the El or fast for an upcoming barbecue, but I have never faced serious issues procuring and eating food (as my blog clearly suggests). So it shocked me that in Cook County alone, 1 out of 6 people suffer from food insecurity. In fact, a 2010 study by the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) found that:

  • 47% of households that the GCFD serves “have had to make the choice between buying food and paying for utilities
  • 44% “had to choose between paying for food and paying for housing”
  • 28% “had to make the choice between buying food and paying for healthcare

To lack the basic necessity of food is a problem you’d expect in Sierra Leone or Haiti, but in the goddamn United States of Excess? “I don’t know why people still struggle with hunger when we’re one of the richest countries in the world. I think it’s racism, I think it’s classism, I think it’s the structures that are in place to keep people disempowered,” says Mary Frohna, Volunteer Coordinator at A Just Harvest (AJH). Located in Rogers Park, AJH is “an anti-hunger organization committed to feeding the hungry andaddressing the root causes of hunger and poverty.”

I decide to explore the hunger crisis in Chicago by volunteering at The Community Kitchen (CK), one of AJH’s numerous programs. With an operating cost of $1,000 per day, CK receives immense support from local volunteers and corporate partnerships (including Jewel, Whole Foods, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository). Having served 54,000+ dinners and contributed 296,000+pounds of food in 2012, the kitchen is open 365 days and welcomes anyone in need.

Our goal is to have it be about respect and dignity,” says Mary. Volunteer waiters serve patrons in a restaurant manner, and house rules (no seconds, no fighting, no taking food home, etc.) are faithfully obeyed. Mary says the goal is to promote interaction between the patrons and volunteers by creating a mutual understanding that “we’re all just people not that far from being in either circumstance.”And tonight’s particularly special because I’m cooking with the Temple Judea Mizpah, the only organization that regularly cooks along side AJH’s chefs. Donning on my plastic gloves and sexy hair net, I help by mixing a monstrous bowl of chicken salad and slicing up gigantic whole watermelons. The menu also consists of spaghetti, chopped salad, mixed vegetables, bread, and various pastries.

As we prep the food, I ask one of the volunteers why hunger remains such a critical issue in America. “There will always be people who are needy,” she replies, adding that a poor economy, dwindling public services, and personal circumstance all play contributing roles. Intrigued, I decide to ask the patrons for their opinion. By now, most of them have settled into the dining room as our one-hour service begins. I strike a conversation with George*, a local resident who serves on the board of directors and organizes Northside P.O.W.E.R., another AJH program that offers “community organizing training and leadership development.” He’s recently returned from a trip in Washington D.C., where he spoke to Senator Durbin about affordable housing. “There are little jobs, no education, it’s a sad situation. Each day you get up, it’s getting worser and worser,” he says. George has been a social activist since the 60s, when he used to be a member of the Black Panther Party. “My thing was to kill the white man. I was carrying guns and weapons, protecting my woman and children,” George says, adding that age and experience has since mellowed out his philosophy.

I ask George about the racial dichotomy often seen in soup kitchens. In fact, 75-90% of CK’s patrons are people of color, 60-65% of which are African American. He replies that blacks suffer from an overwhelming and crushing sense of poverty, adding that “they really have knocked the self-esteem out of our people. We don’t feel like we can go any higher than where we’re at.” Furthermore, he says “every other ethnic group in this nation have been able to prosper. They own their own businesses, they control their own dollars. We haven’t been able to do that.” George says that drugs are “deliberately placed in our communities to stagnate growth of our people.” His friend, Tina*, nods along but holds a positive outlook. She says the biggest misconceptions about black people are that “they’re lazy, they don’t wanna work, they have a lot of babies, they don’t want an education. A lot of us want more out of life; it’s just that some of us are in more situations than others. There are a lot of stressors in the world.” A community organizer and mother of 3 young children, Tina is currently studying for both her GED and college degree.

“I really do believe everybody’s one person, one body, one blood. If people stopped looking at the outside and really look at what a person really is on the inside, they will just see we’re just all the same. What is color anyway? That should be a good blog right there.”

Tina adds that people tend to overly fixate on social issues within the narrow perspective of black versus white. “Why do they always look at black people? We got other nationalities. They have hardships and issues as well.”

George says that nowadays, economic status overshadows skin color as the main problem, adding that “the black man suffers from being poor, not from his color.” However, he acknowledges that the two are inextricably intertwined. He also points out the current fast-food strike, describing the industry as “modern-day slavery” where workers are “underpaid for hard jobs.” George further laments Obama’s increasing centrism, poor education opportunities, and despite my general optimistic disposition, I’m beginning to feel rather morose. But Tina smiles and pats George on the shoulder. “Everyone has the same potential to make it; it depends on you. Even though you’re going through a lot of things in life, you just don’t give up hope. What’s the point of living when you can’t put yourself to make some of your dreams come true?”

Dinner service begins with a rush but quickly dies down in the last 20 minutes. With the crowd dwindling, I sit down with a patron named Keith, who is eating alone and looks needing of company. It’s his first time at CK, and we click immediately. A former coke addict, he now attends Malcolm X College for his GED and describes himself as a workout fanatic. He says programs on the Northside have far more resources than on the Southside or Westside, and he’s taking full advantage of the community programs.

“If you’re hungry, you’re hungry. There’s nothing to be ashamed about,” he says.

Keith tells me about his struggle with hardcore substance abuse: “Coke and heroine are the biggest things that can pull you down into the slums.” He says that drugs play a significant role in many of the patrons’ lives, warning me that drugs “will take you down some dark alleys, some places you never thought you’d go.”

I ask him how he managed to get clean when a sizable percentage of his community still struggles with drugs. “Some people don’t make it—their hearts bust. They die,” he says, “But by the grace of God, I know He has a plan for me.  You can lead a horse to a bucket of water, but you can’t make him drink it. You can lead someone to something, but you can’t make them do it. They have to want to do it on their own.” He adds, “I’m striving for excellence—it’s not where a person has been, it’s about where a person is going in life.”

From my chats with both patrons and volunteers, I realized that food inaccessibility and hunger inevitably became a conversation about race. Nowadays, one would find the rampant racism and sexism of the 50s and 60s as ludicrous, but contemporary Americans fare no better by ignoring our generation’s issues. Not enough people question why homeless people tend be minorities or why certain industries are dominated by blacks or Hispanics. We tend to ignore or delicately meander around uncomfortable information, suppressing them neatly into the back of our social conscience. In trying to foster a “partnership” between patrons and volunteers, Mary encourages volunteers to take the first 20 minutes to interact with patrons. However, she admits that there is often hesitation from the “perceived separation and discomfort that comes with not knowing.” In fact, I rarely observed any of the volunteers interacting with the patrons outside of their perfunctory duties. But really, there’s a fine line between shaming and raising attention to glaring social issues, and I struggle with treading appropriately. Identifying ignorance is often interpreted as an attack on character, and I try immensely hard at avoiding the latter.

If this post has mentally fatigued you with social commentary, rest your weary soul. Ultimately, the Community Kitchen (and all of AJH’s programs) is a fantastic organization that fights hunger by providing the basic necessity of food. Sure, hunger remains a serious societal concern, but they’ve made significant achievements with the resources they have, and that’s a wonderful thing.