When Linda, 63, visited the Marillac St. Vincent Family Services food pantry on a recent Wednesday afternoon, her face lit up with nostalgic joy at the sight of the first produce container brimming with fresh sweet corn.
“My mom used to go to the family market and get fresh sweet corn when it was in season,” recalled Linda, one of the roughly 250 guests who visit the East Garfield Park pantry each week. “It was so much better than the canned (corn) we often ate.”
Though Linda was visiting the pantry to get food for the household she shares with her two daughters and two teenage grandkids, she planned to save the sweet corn she selected to share with her mom.
According to Marillac food pantry supervisor Holly Yacoumakis, Linda’s delight at the seasonal treat isn’t unusual.
“When our guests see the sweet corn, some will exclaim with excitement,” Yacoumakis said. “The thing I hear most is how people are going to grill it that night.”
The thing that delights Yacoumakis is the journey the corn took and the many hands that ensured it would be there for her pantry guests, who live in a neighborhood without much access to fresh produce. “This donation is beautiful,” she said.
Every summer, the Food Depository receives sweet corn from several Illinois farmers who plant, grow and harvest the corn specifically to donate to neighbors who are food insecure in Chicago.
One of those donors, the Agri Heritage Foundation (AHF), has been organizing Illinois farmers to provide sweet corn to the state’s food banks for the past 16 years through their Sweet Corn for Charity program. Cari Garcia Manns founded AHF to promote the tireless work of the local farmers she interacts with in her role at the Chicago Board of Trade.
“We want to help people understand where their food comes from,” Manns said, adding that sweet corn became a great vehicle to do so. AHF hosts many educational programs, and Sweet Corn for Charity is now their largest effort.
Jim Rapp of Rapp Farms in Princeton, Illinois, has been donating to AHF’s Sweet Corn for Charity program for the past 11 years. Rapp has loved sweet corn since he was a kid and has passed that love on to his seven grandkids, all under the age of seven.
“Some little kid in the city has got to experience eating fresh sweet corn off the cob like I did as a kid,” Rapp said, speaking to his motivation to donate. He plants about an acre and a half of sweet corn each year, tucked between his main crops: commercial corn and soybeans. “We are so glad to participate.”
Tony Bonucci of Bonucci Farms, another Sweet Corn for Charity participant, also has fond childhood memories of eating sweet corn. Most of the crops on his Princeton, Illinois, farm are used for commercial purposes. “So, it’s more attractive that the sweet corn is going to people, to be enjoyed,” Bonucci said, adding that he’s happy to share the joy of this seasonal treat with others.
Raising crops and awareness
Every summer on a select Saturday morning, as the sun is just rising over Origer Farm in Marengo, Illinois, dozens of volunteers gather to pick sweet corn. The effort is part of the Growing Initiative Jim Origer started in 2010 to plant and harvest crops to donate to local food banks, including the Food Depository.
Origer’s excitement for the annual donation is matched by his excitement about the volunteers who participate. “We created this as an opportunity for people to give back,” he said, explaining that more than 100 volunteers often show up to help, many recruited through personal connections and the food banks’ networks. “This is a great awareness opportunity, introducing people to food banks and the importance of fresh produce,” he said.
Sherie Huber was among the volunteers picking sweet corn at Origer Farm this year. “Fresh corn is a great memory of summer that everyone should have the opportunity to taste and remember,” she said, adding that this project is about equity for her.
“Fresh, local food should be for everyone.”
This year Origer planted about four acres of sweet corn, which filled three semi-trucks, one of which traveled more than 70 miles to the Food Depository. This year, Origer Farm donated nearly 17,500 pounds of corn, Bonucci Farms donated nearly 17,000 pounds and Rapp Farms donated more than 3,600 pounds. All told, these donations provided the equivalent of more than 31,000 meals to families in Cook County.
“We are so grateful for each of the dedicated partners that connect our Chicagoland neighbors to locally grown and freshly harvested produce,” said Lynda Rosenbush, the Food Depository’s director of procurement and business diversity. “Addressing food insecurity is a big job, and we can’t do it alone. These consistent efforts exemplify the commitment of partners to provide high-quality nutritious food – something invaluable in our mission to end hunger.”
The Food Depository transports the sweet corn donations from the Agri Heritage Foundation farmers and Origer Farms to our warehouse. Nayak Farms in Gardner, Illinois, also donates sweet corn every year, delivering it directly to our facility. Within days of delivery, teams of volunteers repack the sweet corn from large metal cages to small boxes for distribution to our partner pantries.
A sweet seasonal treat
The shipment of sweet corn to the Marillac food pantry arrived less than a week after it had been harvested at Rapp and Bonucci Farms. At Marillac, it received prominent placement in the produce-forward pantry; it was the first item guests could select when shopping for food.
“They did that for us?” several pantry guests responded when hearing about the farmers who grew and donated the sweet corn. A few shared stories of enjoying sweet corn as a child.
Lorraine Moore, 61, has been visiting Marillac’s pantry for a couple years, supplementing what she can afford on her fixed income. Over the summer, she watched her five grandkids, who are all 9 and younger, while their mom worked.
“Sweet corn is one of their favorites,” Moore said as she put a few ears of corn in her cart. She was excited to take it home, cook it for her grandkids and explain the long journey it had taken and the people who wanted to make sure they could enjoy the seasonal treat.