After a beautiful run of things, this week is our last Neighbor’s Table FoodShare in its current form. For the past year, this program has received food from Trader Joe’s South Loop every-other Tuesday morning. A team of volunteers sorts through the food, which is then given away that evening, along with any non-perishables, clothes, or other items that neighbors bring in. After this Tuesday, that form will change, with the Trader Joe’s food instead distributed weekly by a neighborhood partner.
If you are a community development expert, you might not see much here. You might be skeptical of the “share” in the title and assume that most of the neighbors come simply to receive. You might quickly replace the program with more cutting-edge “CD” practices, things that would lead to greater measurable outcomes, give better material for grants or talks or blogs. You might not be wrong, but you would miss something.
You would miss Tania from Ice For Less, who has faithfully and sacrificially donated both her truck and her time to pick up the food from Trader Joe’s for years without compensation. You would miss that this neighborhood entrepreneur, the hardest working and most successful community small business owner that I know, takes time out of her store and her deliveries to care for her neighbors. Her motivation? The senior citizens without health insurance, without safety net. She often tells me, when the work gets hard, that she remembers those who work and work and then, like her parents, face the fragility of old age.
Tania is worth not missing.
If you discounted FoodShare, you would surely miss our morning packing team, overseen by Americo, a community abuelo who orchestrates volunteers both at the morning and at the evening session. You would miss him refusing help, carrying every table out by himself and lugging in bags of non-perishables that he collects at other citywide food giveaways in order to redistribute at FoodShare. His daughter says he never once in their childhood received assistance, scrapping together whatever he needed to provide for his family; only now, in his retirement, does he gather the food for the purpose of giving to others. And if that weren’t enough, you’d miss Maribel, a mama of many small ones whose apartment and possessions burned not long ago, but who comes all the way in from their temporary housing by O’Hare to work Neighbor’s Table. You’d miss the broken Spanglish we all communicate in in order to include not only Maribel and Americo, but Goodie, the beautiful German cat-collector from a few blocks away, who for years never misses a FoodShare. Ever.
Americo, Goodie, and Maribel: they are worth not missing.
Moving along to the actual Neighbor’s Table event. There’s no benefit to lining up in our system–numbers for food are randomly given–so the abuelas and mamas cannot be lining up for pure dependence, yet many get there far earlier than I do (with my four to six kids in tow). You might see the line and think “Food Pantry.” But you’d miss that whenever I come with my key to prep, it opens the door for everyone, because we all–every person in the [non-]line– works as a volunteer before the packing. Some watch children, some cut cake, some bring out food, some greet. Ms. Mary, the grandma across the street raising four kids whose mother was lost in a car accident, brings over their hand-me-downs. Luz Maria brings me three boxes of ice cream cones and scolds me for putting them on the share table: “Those were for your kids!” (who are already spoiled with the dollar Ms. Betsey gave them). The neighborhood women (aka Powers That Be) set out all the non-perishables and clothes, and then keep anyone, including themselves, from taking anything until it’s time.
The line-turned-volunteers are worth not missing.
And the youth. Oh, the youth. Our youth, of course, like all youth, can be energetic and focused solely on securing a basketball and a court for themselves and their friends. But at FoodShare, the youth become something else: the supporters of their elders. They move tables, they carry food. They take directions from Americo and distribute the food, modeling volunteerism for their co-workers, the children of all the volunteers and mamas and abuelas. (Kudos to Americo for overseeing a team almost entirely under age 15.) They clean and clean, and only after the work is done do they play. I am never more proud of our youth, never more hopeful for what they can bring to our elders, than on FoodShare evenings.
The youth-turned-leaders are worth not missing.
But here is the last thing that cannot be underestimated. I’m sure I’ll overstate it for the likes of our neighbors, who are far less sentimental than I am, but I’d call it love. For sure community, for sure collaboration, for sure support–but I’d venture to call it love. Within this “program”, every body who comes consistently is known and knows others: tracking stories, following heartbreaks, celebrating accomplishments year after year (sometimes even with a spontaneous birthday party for someone’s child). Here, no matter how we feel about each other as neighbors with petty squabbles, we come together for common purpose, common good–all with the excuse of bringing home a few pounds of Trader Joe’s groceries and someone’s cousin’s Christmas dress.
So if you come this week and hear us brainstorming about what Neighbor’s Table could become without the Trader Joe’s food or what “good” community development could be done in its place, don’t miss what it has been. As Victor Hugo paraphrases St. John: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” And I would venture to say that this is what all of us–atheist, believer, or otherwise–truly do not want to miss: love and the face of God.
Elizabeth Galik is Executive Director of River City Community Development Center (R CITY) and direct beneficiary of the Neighbor’s Table program.
Some names in this piece have been changed.