History of the Greater Chicago Food Depository
During the 1960s, the number of people living in poverty in Chicago increased dramatically, and many adults and children were unable to obtain adequate food. Through efforts such as the CBS documentary “Hunger in America” and Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America,” the nation became aware of the broad scope and severity of hunger in this most prosperous of countries. In 1967, John Van Hengel founded the first food bank, a warehouse which received donated food and distributed it to soup kitchens in Phoenix.
In 1978, Tom O’Connell collaborated with Robert W. Strube, Sr., Father Philip Marquard, Gertrude Snodgrass, Ann Connors and Ed Sunshine to set up a food bank similar to the Phoenix model, called the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The City of Chicago provided a start-up grant, and Strube Celery and Vegetable Company donated warehouse space. The Food Depository distributed 471,000 pounds of food from 22 food donors to 85 agencies in its first year of operation.
The food bank’s supply grew when Illinois legislators passed a Good Samaritan law in 1981. The legislation protected food contributors from legal liabilities (Congress passed national legislation in 1996). Within a year food donors increased to 111, distribution to 6.1 million pounds and agencies to 375, and the Food Depository leased a more spacious warehouse. The growing food bank settled in a 91,000 square foot facility at 4501 South Tripp Avenue in 1984.
In 1986, the Food Depository established a Perishable Food Program, now known as Food Rescue, with a grant from Chicago Community Trust. The program ferried unused food from restaurants and caterers to soup kitchens. The Food Depository further broadened its distribution in 1993. The Produce People Share Program addressed the need for fresh fruits and vegetables in the community, and the first Kids Cafe® began serving after-school hot meals for low-income children.
By 1998, the Food Depository’s distribution topped 25 million pounds. In that same year, the food bank founded Chicago’s Community Kitchens, a free, 12-week culinary training program for unemployed and underemployed adults. In 2001, the first Producemobile, a farmers’ market on wheels, began distributing fresh produce to low-income communities.
The Food Depository culminated a $30 million capital campaign with the opening of a new 268,000 square foot warehouse and training center in 2004. The building brought all of the food bank’s programs under one roof and became an international model for food banks. The state-of-the-art facility enhanced efficiency while offering increased capacity to respond to a rising need.
Program expansion continued during the early years of the new warehouse and training center. Pantry University, a training program for staff and volunteers from member agencies, opened its doors in 2004, and a second Producemobile began operation in 2005. A second program for children, Nourish for Knowledge, started in 2006, and a Senior Program launched in 2006. Responding to the need on nights and weekends, the Mobile Pantry Program began operating in 2007.
Today, the Food Depository distributes 66 million pounds of food, including more than 21 million pounds of produce, to 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Cook County. Nearly 142,000 men, women and children turn to the Food Depository’s network each week, and nearly 678,000 people turn to the network annually.