This post is shared by Kris Smart, Associate Executive Director of Programs and Shared Services.

I stand, with my hairnet on, lab coat fastened, and gloved hands over the bin of “vine ripe” tomatoes and huge pallets full of crates made of rustic wire and simple slats full of corn in grey husks. My job today, along with my fellow volunteers, is to shuck the moldy husks off perfectly good corn and sort the good from the rotten tomatoes. All this food would go to waste. All this food would end up in landfill. The only thing wrong with this bounty is cosmetic, so I remove the husk and place the cob into a clean bin. Another volunteer inspects it and, determining it is good, puts it into fresh packaging a half-dozen per tray, and wraps it up with clear cellophane. A third volunteer counts packages into boxes, seals the box and finally stacks the completed box on a fresh pallet. We work this way, listening to music, getting to know each other, laughing and telling stories for three hours. We are recovering produce at the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD).

At the end of our shift, a staff member counts the boxes and pallets and writes a few numbers on a clip board. A volunteer asks – “How many pounds of food did we pack today?” The answer from the clip board is 10,000. The 20 volunteers from Chicago Cares that day served 60 hours. We count that. We count the 10,000 pounds, which joins the 4.6 million pounds of food we have packed in our 20 year history and show it as our impact in the community. We count the 60 hours. We count the 20 volunteers.

But on that day, our impact did not stop with recovering 10,000 pounds of produce from what some would consider garbage or the number of families that would serve or even the volunteers we engaged in building the community. Our impact was far greater than that, it is also in every hour served by every person who was there with me that day and any day we are at the Food Depository.

I was reminded of what our service means by Thomas, our South Side Human Services Coordinator who shared the following with me recently:

This month Lakeview Pantry received $450 on their GCFD account statement from our CCI workdays. Helping Lakeview Pantry provide food for 400 of their neighbors!

“Your generosity means so much to us, not just for our budget but because you are working alongside us to accomplish our mission” – Stuart, Director of Programs & Operations

One of the most unsung impacts we have as an organization is the ripple effect of service done in support of one partner that in turn helps another partner succeed. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is one of those places. We go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository because every hour served by a volunteer at the GCFD turns into credits, and those credits are used by partner agencies to purchase food. The organizations our hours support do not have large volunteer bases to go to the GCFD to earn credits through service themselves, so Chicago Cares helps them purchase more food to feed more families.

Although we purchase tens of thousands of dollars of groceries each year that we then cook and serve to thousands of kids, adults and seniors, we cannot be a receiving agency for food donations for our programs. The logistics, costs associated with food storage, transporting the food from the GCFD to a central location and then distributing it to the hundred or so programs that have a meal component would exceed what we would save by becoming a partner agency. So our hours and the credits they earn go to our pantry partners. Our hours pack boxes of food on the floor of the depository. Our hours allow our pantry partners to purchase the food for the families they serve. Our volunteers then unload the trucks as they arrive at the pantry door, unpack the boxes, put the food on shelves and then helping families select the food they need to survive.

A few days after packing corn, I led a project at Groceryland South, a pantry for people living with HIV and AIDS on the south side in the Englewood neighborhood run by Vital Bridges. On the large board that lists the items available for families that day were corn and tomatoes. An elderly woman I was helping looked at the week’s offerings and said, “Corn, wow, I would sure like a taste of summer about now.” I marked it down on her list. As I gathered her groceries in the cart, I walked into the fridge for her produce, dairy and meat and smiled. On the shelf stacked neatly were the packages of corn. I knew I had shucked that corn. I knew my hours at the GCFD made it easier for Vital Bridges to purchase the corn from the Food Depository. And now I knew the woman who would get her taste of summer in a small part because of my service.