If someone were to build the perfect way to feed a community, I think it’d look a lot like a farmer’s market.
Douglas Callegario would be there with freshly baked breads. All Grass Farms would have a table with eggs, milk, tons of fresh produce. You’d pickup what you needed and then meet with Leyla and Ahmet from Black & Caspian who’d show you how to make an incredible meal. The whole thing would somehow be free and everyone in the neighborhood would have access to healthy food, from great chefs, never going to bed hungry.
That would be the pie-in-the-sky dream. And on Saturdays at the Nettlehorst Market in Lakeview East or Green City Market in Lincoln Park, that dream is pretty close to reality (minus the free part). Even grocery stores like Mariano’s or Trader Joe’s, I take it for granted, but it’s pretty close to the dream too – fresh food, close by, easy to get there.
The nightmare scenario is, unfortunately, what played out this summer in the food deserts of Chicago. A food desert is an area where residents have to travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket (oftentimes it’s 3-5 miles away). Over 23 million Americans live in food deserts. In some of these neighborhoods, residents have been without a nearby supermarket for 10+ years.
In Chicago, the main way to travel out of the food desert is via public transit. This became dangerous during the pandemic, especially since these were the same areas most highly impacted by COVID-19.
And if that wasn’t challenge enough, come May and June, the few grocery stores around were temporarily closed after significant damage from riots and looting.
“We are worried it could take months for businesses to assess the damage, pick up the mess, bring their people back as they assess the safety conditions of their employees,” Felicia Slaton-Young, Executive Director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce said in a Chicago Tribune article from June 5th.
I keep typing, “people were without many options,” but that’s an understatement. For thousands of Chicagoans, there literally was no safe option for food, let alone anything healthy. Grocery stores were closed, food delivery wasn’t available, and one-third of the Greater Chicago Food Depository network pantries were shutdown due to Coronavirus.
Danielle Davis, who’s from the South Side of Chicago, couldn’t take her mind off this situation.
“I was on a weekly work call where we talk about current events and happenings of the areas that we live in,” Davis said. “And I was so incredibly bothered by all of the looting that happened over the course of that weekend. I got on the call and I started to cry. And if you know me personally, I’m not a crier, I’m not really emotional. But I’ve been so bothered, and I think it was just kind of built up. There’s no way that I can sit here at this table, on my computer, in my home eating my food when there are so many kids that don’t have anything and their parents can’t help them either.”
Danielle messaged her boss, asked if she could take the afternoon off. Her boss said yes and Danielle went right to work.
“I went to Costco with my dad and we bought $1,000 worth of food,” Davis said. “I called up a couple of my friends that I knew would be interested in helping, and we just went and did it.”
The idea was to create school lunches for children so their families could easily come pickup food. Danielle shared the news on Instagram and her efforts quickly caught the attention of her friend Cam Dangerfield, Chef and Owner of Meltt Cafe in Atlanta.
“Cam called me and he’s like, ‘Hey, I saw what you’re doing. I think it’s a great idea,” Davis said. “‘What if we take it up a notch and let’s do home cooked meals for kids instead of just a basic sandwich, chips, juice box. They’ll be able to experience something that maybe they haven’t eaten before.'”
Cam is also from Chicago and was visiting family for two weeks.
“He was like, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything. I’ll just cook the first 20 meals while we figure out where we’re gonna get the rest of them.”
Cam went to the kitchen, started to do what he does best, creating home-cooked meals from scratch. He put in the same attention to detail that he does with his catering company.
“Cook the food, style it,” Cam described in an ABC7 news feature video. “And not just any food, we’re doing gourmet, exquisite meals for these people in need.”
One of Danielle’s friends who works as a social worker provided a list of families. They started with 10 families, then found 15 more by the end of the week.
Their dream and vision didn’t stop there.
“We started to just tag random chefs on Instagram like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Can you help make us meals?” Davis said. “We’ll start you off with your first donation, $75, if you can make a meal for a family of five. And once you do that, pass it on to another chef.”
Danielle and Cam started out in the Chatham neighborhood and expanded over to Auburn Gresham, two of the most severe food deserts in all of Chicago. Some of the grocery stores were closed down for two weeks, so Danielle did food delivery for a little over a month and a half. They kept tagging more chefs in different cities and over the course of four weeks, the effort expanded to feed over 250 families across the country.
“The chefs we reached out to were so willing and so happy to do it,” Davis said. “I hardly got pushback from anyone.”
Of all the families served, one of the dropoffs that stands out most in Danielle’s memory was when she visited a pregnant woman with five children who needed help taking the food upstairs.
“I was carrying the boxes upstairs and I looked around and their apartment was bare bones, no furniture. They were all sleeping on the floor,” Davis said. “And she was so appreciative and so thankful. She started to cry. And that made me start to tear up because she was just so thankful. Her kids were so excited for the fruits and vegetables, because that’s also not something that is easily available within their area.”
Danielle always wanted to start a non-profit and this situation gave her the push to go out and do it. She launched Good Vibes Only Chi with three friends and their work has included providing these meals along with diaper/wipes/formula/food pickups for new moms and a school supply drive with 250 backpacks + Chromebooks for kids on the South Side.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Davis said. “And we are where we’re supposed to be at this time.”
For the holiday, Danielle is doing a Chefs For Change Thanksgiving edition. They’ll be distributing meals on Monday, November 23rd at Butler College Prep High School located at 821 E 103rd St from 6-8:30 PM in the Pullman neighborhood. The goal is to feed 25-35 families.
Ways to help and participate are through monetary donations (you can reach out on to good.vibes.only_chi on Instagram or to email@example.com) or continue to spread the word on social media using the #ChefsForChangeChallenge hashtag.
“I just want to add a thank you to everyone that has supported us, whether that is with time, or donations, or attending an event that we’ve had,” Davis said. “Every little bit of support is very appreciated, and it does not go unnoticed. We wouldn’t have made it this far without our community, so we just want to say thank you to everyone.”
I go back to that pie-in-the-sky dream at the beginning of this article, the fictional farmer’s market with fresh food prepared by incredible chefs, free of charge, and for as idyllic and far-fetched as that scene sounded, it’s exactly what Danielle and Cam created. And they did it in neighborhoods who were facing the exact opposite grocery shopping scenario.
It’s amazing to see what they accomplished, what they’re continuing to build, and to remember it all started with an idea during a work meeting, a chef, a kitchen, and one homecooked meal at a time.
If you scratched your head about the Douglas Callegario, All Grass Farms, and Black & Caspian references in the opening paragraph, those are part of an ongoing series this year featuring local restaurants and businesses all around Chicago. I’ve been amazed at how the themes of these different stories are tying together and I’m just continuing to follow where these stories go.
To catch up on some of the previous posts and read about great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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