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Food For Chicago!
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  •   Sieze the day!
      © Kushánd 2008

    What started out as a casual conversation with my niece, ended up as a walk down "memory lane" for me...and a little bit more!

    Years ago, when I was living in Chicago, my eighth grade teacher invited me and a few other students from my class to atend a special church serimony one weekend. I remember I was very excited, getting dressed to go. It was one of those rare Sundays in my childhood on which I washed up! I had no idea where it was we were going or what we could expect to see.

    When he arrived in front of our house, I was standing alone at the curb waiting. I thought it strange that my parents didn't even come down to meet him and weren't curious about where he was taking us. The other children in the car seemed to be just as curious about him as I was and it didn't look as if they could answer any of the question that were forming in my mind.

    But since the teacher was White, I expected he was taking the children he thought were representative of intelligent Black children to some White church, where we'd probably get a first hand experience of "sanctified Whites worshiping the lord". I was so caught up in thought, that I didn't pay attention, so I didn't know where we were, although I have a pretty good since of direction. Staring out the backseat window, as we drove, I was expecting at any minute to see the color of the people's faces we were passing slowly change from, black to white and beginning to wonder if I really wanted to be a part of the charade I was expecting. But, after a short drive, I realized we hadn't left the black neighborhood. We were only a few miles from my home. That was good, because I knew then, if the situation got in anyway too uncomfortable for me, I could get home easily enough, even if that would have an affect on my grades.

    The teacher suddenly became excited and began to slow the car down and look for a parking place, smiling. As I glanced at the faces of the other children in the car, I could tell they were just as relieved as I was to know our destination was close to home. But, things didn't really make sense! "Why would this obvious outsider want to go into a Black church with us?", I was thinking. Were we his aliby, his justification? Were we his ticket to blackness? Who was mockering who?

    After he parked the car, he hastened us to get out and on to the sidewalk. Even though the expression on his face was zealious, eyes sparkling, his tone hadn't changed. He still seemed to be the guy who was teaching my eigth-grade class. I didn't sense the fear in him I thought every White person felt, when they came to a Black neighborhood, only excitement.

    He told us to take each other's hand and led us down the street toward a huge building coming up to the right of us. It didn't seem to bother him that almost everyone, who noticed this strange gathering, was staring, as we approached the building.

    As we reached the entrance, which had about 25 stairs leading to it, we say a number of people entering. Only a few of them were White. Over the roof covering the stairs, hung a large white sign made of cloth from one column to the other that read "Operation Push". As I looked around at the others, I could see the same question forming in my mind expressed in their faces, "What kind of a church is this?" Nobody spoke. We followed the teacher into the building and entered a large reception hall. A group of women were standing in the hall passing out booklets of some kind. The teacher took five of them and handed one to each of us, while our eyes scanned what we could now see was a make-shift church, in a large room headed by a stage almost as wide as the room itself.

    There was a small band on the stage with a choir of about 15 people singing. Still following the teacher, we entered a row of seats in the middle of the room and seated oursevles in the middle of that. It wasn't long until Reverend Jesse Jackson took the stage and the procession began with a song. Our teacher and everyone else in the room stood up and began to sing along. He motioned for us to stand up with him. It was at the end of the procession that I discovered why he brought us.

    It seemed to me he wanted to show us that he was aware of the problems facing the American society and that he was determined to do what every he could to offset the ill effects it was having on Black children. He wanted us to know that what Jesse Jackson was doing was good for Blacks and that we should understand that he was a supporter -- that everyone should be a supporter.

    I don't remember much about the procession itself, except that my teacher sang very loud, but not very good. I never liked church and only went either when I had too, or when there was a particular girl there I was "making eyes at". But, I do remember that Mr. Jackson mentioned a program he had created to help feed poor Blacks called "Operation Breadbasket". At the time I didn't know that this was a result of the work Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party had initiated in Chicago. At that time, I believed the propaganda I had heard and thought that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were the leaders of a street gang known in Chicago as the Disciples.

    After the procession our teacher took everyone of us home and thanked us for comming, as he dropped us off. I found that strange. I thought, "Shouldn't we be thanking him?". None-the-less, nothing else was said. I went into our house, changed close as quick as I could, and hit the streets looking for my budies. I don't remember, whether or not my parents asked me anything about where I had been, or what I had done. Maybe they already knew about Jesse Jackson and his project.

    That summer vacation, the "in" things was to got to 59th Street, hop on to a truck's bumper, when it stopped for the light and ride about 15 blocks east to Halsted, if you didn't get caught by the driver, which was bad, or the police, which was worse. There we'd jump off and go a couple of blocks south to the Operation Breadbasket headquarters, eat a hot meal and walk back to 59th and hitch a ride back. I might add that most truck drivers don't take to kindly to young hitchikers.

    Although the food wasn't too bad, I really had a problem with excepting hand-outs. And in a way, it angered me that my "friends", who had been reluctant to tell about the free meal, were taking advantage of these people's generosity. They never refused us and seemed to be glad we came. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something wrong in what we were doing, besides risking our lives hoping on the back of trucks. But, the last two times I went, the food wasn't good at all. I thought, "Well, this is what a hand-out tastes like, and beggars aren't choosy." But, it was my conscious that convinced me to skip our new passtime and leave the food to those more needy. I thought, "Anyone who eats that stuff, has to be in dire need.", and I wasn't.

    Now, my niece called me to tell me, among other things, that she's is working in a program in Chicago similar to "Operation Breadbasket" called "Kids Cafe". According to her, this program, which runs nine weeks at a time, serves three purposes: For one, it enables people with the desire to become chef cooks the ability to gain training and experience with the prospect of getting a job. The other is that meals are prepare from the foods donated to the organization, which is homed in The Greater Chicago Food Depository, for the needy, which is delivered to the them at various locations around the city, predominantly in poor i.e. non-white neighborhoods. Finally, people serving time in jail and others, who through some crimnal offence are forced to do public service for the city, are brought to the Depository daily to assist in delivering the food. An absolutely great concept! The city of Chicago and the many companies that participate are actually doing something to offset the ill-effects discrimination and segregation are having on the people most affected.

    As far as my niece can tell, the storage rooms at the Depository are full of donated foods. Wonderfull! A definite indication that the food companies involved are overwilling to help, and truck-loads, I'm told, are arriving everyday. So, where's the problem?

    One of the problems has to do with how the participants are trained to handle the food they prepare. According to my niece's account, hygene and food-handling do not seem to rate high on the training list. Although many of the program's participants are only there to renew their cooking licenses free of charge, others are there to learn the trade and have no prior expierience. Some of the participants are x-drug addicts trying to get their lives back in order. Surprisingly enough, the program doesn't require anyone handling food there to pass any health examinations. That implies that some of the participants could be carriers of infectious deseases: hepatitis and AIDS for example. If good health is not a requirement, chances are very high that deseases could be transmited from the program's participants to the food recipients. If nothing else, that is at least cause for SERIOUS CONCERN! But, Chicago doesn't seem to be worried.

    Another problem has to do with the amount of food the Depository has stored. As I've ready stated, the Depository's halls are full, to the cealings. And with truck-loads arriving everyday, more food has accumulated than the current number of program participants will ever be able to process. Obviously this has been the case for years because the Depository now has foods stored with expiration dates dating back to 2004! Of course that has to do with the fact that some of the foods were received after they had expired. Then, some less-than-desireable deliverys are accecpted and stored for processing.

    For instance, my niece says, they've unpacked chickens with NO wings and chickens with three (3) legs! I've given up trying to figure out the name of the food store that would donate a three-legged chicken to a non-profit organization that prepares food for poor children! Some of the foods are in damaged packaging: dented cans; vaccum-packed wrapping with holes in them. As you would think, even though the Depository is located in a huge building designed for the purpose of storing food over long periods of time, the shear volume it receives will at some point make it a least difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of it all! It must be equally as difficult to ensure that sanitary standards are meet and monitored in all of the storage halls.

    My niece tells me that the food is mostly only partially prepared, before delivery. In order to accomplish this, the foods have to be cooled after they've been half-cooked, which stops the cooking process. Typically ice is used to do the cooling. The ice is stored in refrigerators in the kitchens, where the meals are prepared. The lack of personnel and (obviously) poor management as well as maintainance has resulted in poor hygenal conditions within the refrigerators. The accumulation of green mold in the refrigerators attest to the fact that the level of bacteria wihtin them has progressed above and beyond the level for concern and is approaching criminal intent! Again, THIS ice is placed on the prepared food -- to stop the cooking -- process, before the food is packaged for delivery! UUUUUHHHHHHMMMMMMMM! Sounds delicious!

    Of course I asked her if the employees at the Depository are aware of that, and the people that hired them, and as I did, I realized how foolish the question was. When I asked her if she thought the mayor of Chicago would be interested in knowing what was going on there, she said something to this affect: "This isn't something that just started happening when I entered the program, so the chances are slim to none that he doesn't."

    Curiously, she told me, Chicago's Channel 11 sent its Chicago Lights team to the Depository to do an interview some time ago. On that day, the programs participant's discovered that they were scheduled to take an examination. How convenient. By the way, no one fails the program -- regardless of how they perform on any of the examinations! Every participants receives a food handlers license! Leads you to believe that everyone is sooo knowledgeable, knowing how one scored or even going over the examinations would just be wastimg time? It's better than that:
    Before each examination, an instructor dicusses each question with the examinees and provides them with the answers. No one ever receives their examination results. The thinking here seems to be:
    "If you're so stupid that you fail an examination even after you were given the answers to EVERY question before you took it, then you're probably so stupid that you'll never get the opportunity to put your food handlers license to use anyway."
    Sounds logical, rational!

    Now, getting back to the Chicago Light's interview. On that day, none of the program's participants were in the kitchens that were inspected. Equally, none of them were ever informed that there would be an interview. So, as you would guess, Channel 11's Chicago Lights team left the Depository absolutely pleased at what they were shown.

    I don't know for sure, but I suppose years ago "Operation Breadbasket" got its food from this very same Depository. Maybe it wasn't my conscious after all that caused me to stop going there, but good sense! Jesse Jackson's program was discontinued. Let us see to it that the same thing happens to this one, and that, real soon!

    Kushánd Fantí
    (Date: 22.05.2006; revised: 20.07.2008)

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