In an airy warehouse on Chicago’s Lower West Side, large batches of pretzels travel upward on a conveyor belt, cascade down into smaller portion-size chambers of the machine, and then plunge into vacuum-sealed bags branded as “Credzels.”

Workers inspect the bags for any flaws or defects, and then carefully pack them into boxes destined for food pantries throughout Chicago and Cook County.

This is no ordinary pretzel factory.

Charletta Joseph, at left, inspects a bag of pretzels for flaws.

Charletta Joseph, at left, inspects a bag of pretzels for flaws.

This is CREDMADE, a business subsidiary of the nonprofit Chicago CRED, which aims to reduce gun violence in Chicago. Most of the workers have been touched by gun violence in some way; CREDMADE seeks to give them the support and opportunity needed to change their lives. And the Food Depository is investing in that work by buying its products, starting with pretzels, and distributing them to people in need.

CREDMADE is a “trauma-informed manufacturing organization” that helps its workers move from the “illegal economy to the legal economy,” said Rahul Pasarnikar, co-founder of CREDMADE.

The partnership with the Food Depository is a natural fit. As a contract packer, CREDMADE packages and ships certain products for local food companies. But its underlying mission is to serve as a bridge for its workers between Chicago CRED’s job training programs and meaningful employment.

The Food Depository, likewise, has its own job training programs for people who need an extra boost into the workforce. Poverty and unemployment are also root causes of food insecurity. And increasingly, Chicago’s food bank is partnering with local businesses that provide economic opportunity in the communities that we serve.

“We want to invest more in the local economy because it has a dual benefit – we receive fresh, local food and we’re supporting the workforce in the communities that we’re serving,” said Brendan Kitt, the Food Depository’s director of food acquisition.

A CREDMADE worker loads a large batch of pretzels into the packing machine.

A CREDMADE worker loads a large batch of pretzels into the packing machine.

Chicago CRED, the parent organization of CREDMADE, was founded in 2016 by former U.S Secretary of Education (and South Side native) Arne Duncan and Laurene Powell Jobs, president of the California-based Emerson Collective. The nonprofit provides street outreach, life coaching and job training to its participants. CRED stands for “create real economic destiny.”

In 2019, Pasarnikar co-founded CREDMADE as a co-packing business that would provide more jobs – and more support – to workers on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

“The same neighborhoods and families that the Food Depository is serving, who need help and support getting good food, also need employment opportunities,” Pasarnikar said. “We’re really serving the same populations.”

Rahul Pasarnikar co-founded CREDMADE in 2019.

Rahul Pasarnikar co-founded CREDMADE in 2019.

Success happens both on and off the clock at CREDMADE.

Carlos Vargas, production manager at the plant, previously served in the Army and worked with veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Now he’s helping to train and coach those whose lives have been affected – and in some cases, shattered – by gun violence.

People who have experienced that type of trauma need more flexibility and patience than what’s typically offered in manufacturing jobs, Vargas said. Providing that support while running a business is difficult but rewarding, he said.

“You’re taking care of people, to see someone change, to see them progress,” Vargas said. “It affects not only them but their families. There’s nothing better than that feeling.”

Since beginning work at CREDMADE in 2019, Charletta Joseph has learned both hard and soft skills. The mother of six learned how to drive a forklift and received her forklift certification. And as a team lead, she’s learned how to be a leader of people who are living through heartbreaking circumstances.

“Some of them have been shot,” Joseph said. “Some of them have friends that have been shot and killed, so they’re working out of their emotions. I had to really learn to adapt to that.”

Charletta Joseph, a team lead at CREDMADE, stands for a portrait outside the facility.

Charletta Joseph, a team lead at CREDMADE, stands for a portrait outside the facility.

She added: “It’s helped me, too, because I know that I’m not perfect. If I can help someone going through something, it helps me to look back on my own life and say, you’re going through something similar or you have been through that already.”

Since March, the Food Depository has received a truckload of the Credzels every two weeks, Kitt said. Each truckload contains 12,000 of the 16-ounce packages.

It is a bit unusual for the Food Depository to distribute snack food items but CREDMADE’s low-sodium pretzels fit the Food Depository’s nutritional guidelines, Kitt said. Typically, the Food Depository distributes more produce, dairy, meat and shelf-stable items. So far, the response from people receiving the pretzels has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

CREDMADE, founded in 2019, seeks to provide a bridge between job training programs and meaningful employment.

CREDMADE, founded in 2019, seeks to provide a bridge between job training programs and meaningful employment.

Next up, the Food Depository and CREDMADE plan to partner on a new cereal that will be distributed to food pantries later this summer.

Joseph’s eyes lit up in a detectable smile above her mask when asked how she feels about CREDMADE’s products going to families in need.

“I’m so proud of that,” she said. “To have the CREDMADE name on the bag, and to know you guys are satisfied with how we’re packaging and shipping them to you, I feel very good about that.”