Just after dawn on Saturday morning, a dozen volunteers gathered at a vacant lot in Glenview wearing fleece jackets, winter hats and work gloves. At 7 a.m., a semi-truck rolled up, loaded with 38,400 pounds of chicken legs and thighs packed tight in unmarked cardboard boxes.
By 7:15, the volunteers were bending and lifting, gripping boxes with their work gloves and handing them down the gangplank from the truck to form organized piles along the grassy edge of the vacant lot. From there, each box was loaded into a waiting volunteer’s car and shipped off to 21 food pantries and community kitchens from Waukegan to Englewood.
A project of the H.E.A.R. organization, this giant chicken donation has taken place twice a year since 2009, timed so the food is delivered a few days before Thanksgiving and just before Mother’s Day. All told, the Glenview-based nonprofit donates 80,000 pounds, or roughly 155,000 meals per year. This year, the agencies who received chicken include the , , the Des Plaines Self Help Food Pantry and in Evanston.
Inspiration Comes From The Chicken Market
The Health, Education & Relief (H.E.A.R.) Foundation was started by Greg Antonucci and Jim Ziemba, friends who work together at the Chicago Board of Trade and who both live in Glenview. The two wanted to give back, but didn’t like the fact that, with many nonprofits, 50 percent or more of their monetary donation would go to overhead.
“We didn’t know where our money was going,” Antonucci said on Saturday, as he took a break from unloading boxes in the vacant lot.
Wanting more control over how their money was used, he and Ziemba created the H.E.A.R. Foundation in 2006. The traders pay the organization’s handful of salaries and administrative costs out of their own pockets, meaning 100 percent of any money donated goes to the programs the foundation supports. Currently, H.E.A.R. funds a home for impoverished or orphaned girls in Guatemala, a literacy program for Chicago students and a transitional job-training agency in Englewood, among other efforts.
"My partner said, 'Chicken's so cheap. What can we do?'"
Antonucci and Ziemba got the idea for the chicken donation at work at the Chicago Board of Trade, when the price of poultry dropped significantly in 2009.
“My partner said, ‘Chicken’s so cheap, what can we do?’” recalled Antonucci. They arranged to purchase chicken at 40 cents per pound from Tyson.
Even at the height of the economic downturn, he said, “it surprised us the need there was.”
According to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, need for food in Cook County has risen by 88 percent in the last 5 years.
Even in Cook County’s wealthiest suburbs, the amount of hunger that exists is eye-opening, according to Elizabeth Antonucci, who is H.E.A.R.’s manager of programs and fundraising as well as Greg Antonucci’s daughter.
After speaking to the school’s administration, the graduate learned that 15 to 20 percent of the Glenbrook South’s population is on free or reduced lunch.
“Coming from Glenview, and being in what is considered an affluent community—people don’t really realize how much need there is, even in the north shore,” Elizabeth said.
Local Pantries Welcome The Protein
Among the people helping to deliver the food on Saturday morning were a host of volunteers from the , a two-year-old nonprofit founded by Northbrook resident Dan Jariabka and a group of parishioners from Northbrook’s St. Giles Episcopal Church. The group’s goal is to help distribute supplies to food pantries and kitchens in the area — supporting whatever each agency needs.
Volunteer Patty Dodson, who is Jariabka’s neighbor, pulled up in her SUV to load 520 boxes of chicken into her trunk for delivery to , a food pantry on the Evanston-Chicago border. Dodson helps deliver food for the Hunger Resource Network regularly and has volunteered twice a week at A Just Harvest since she retired last year. The community kitchen serves between 175 and 200 people per night, seven days a week, according to Dave Crawford, director of food service.
“There are families, there are kids in high chairs, there are veterans,” said Dodson.
In Evanston, Dodson turned into a back alleyway off Paulina Street, behind the community kitchen. Inside, Crawford emerged from the walk-in freezer, shivering from the cold, where he had been loading boxes from an earlier delivery of chicken.
Crawford greeted Dodson with a bear hug, and said the delivery was greatly appreciated. All told, Hunger Resource Network volunteers transported 1,000 pounds of food to A Just Harvest that morning, providing an estimated 8,000 servings of chicken. (Full disclosure: this reporter helped carry some boxes of chicken herself.)
“Need has increased across the board,” Crawford said. “I know food pantries that are running out of food with 150 people in line.”
In the last two years, need has increased by 40 percent at A Just Harvest, according to Crawford. The number of seniors the food pantry sees has also increased by 15 percent.
Volunteers will pass out some 800 pounds of the chicken at the community kitchen’s next monthly “produce mobile,” when hungry individuals line up for groceries. Crawford will use the rest of the chicken to make soup, he said, something the kitchen serves whenever it gets below 40 degrees. He’ll boil the thighs and legs, including bones, to make stock, then save the meat to add to soups for protein.
“It means a lot to our patrons,” Crawford said. “The need — it’s ridiculous now.”
Amidst Occupy Wall Street, ‘This Is Nothing Political’
While hundreds of people move into their third month of “Occupy Wall Street” protests in downtown Chicago, the chicken donation might seem opportunely timed by a pair of traders. But Antonucci emphasizes the fact that H.E.A.R. started the effort long before the protests.
“This is nothing political,” he said. And besides, he doesn’t see the protests as related to his day job.
“Occupy Wall Street is not about traders, they’re really small people in the scheme of it,” he said. “They’re talking about government.”
In his view, the H.E.A.R. Foundation is simply a way to give back in a time of great need — and a vehicle for inspiring his fellow community members.
“Everybody wants to do good, everybody wants to help out,” he said. “It kind of feeds upon itself.”
Antonucci cites the example of Hunger Resource Network founder Jariabka, who would like to organize the chicken donation two more times per year. Jariabka believes that if he could get a network of churches involved, each donating a thousand pounds, his group could help make a bigger dent in the community’s need.
“I’m always overwhelmed at the number of people who’ll come out here at 7 in the morning,” Antonucci said. “That’s what we’re trying to create in society right now.”