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Annual Gala addresses hunger

Wed, Oct 24, 2012

Food had special significance in the battle against homelessness at this year’s StreetWise gala, so Executive Director Jim LoBianco wasted no time as the dinner’s opening speaker.

StreetWise Executive Director Jim LoBianco addresses the guests at the StreetWise 2012 Fundraising Gala. Photo Credits: Brendan Ross

“Go ahead and eat, do yourselves a favor. I am already enjoying this evening to the point of being overwhelmed. It’s an incredible feat to see this many people turn out to help the people who need it most: the people StreetWise serves,” LoBianco said.

For more than 20 years, StreetWise magazine has “been a bedrock of stability for 10,000 men and women” and has given StreetWise “phenomenal name recognition,” LoBianco said. Later this year, readers will be able to buy the magazine with smartphones and PayPal, while still patronizing individual vendors. Next on the horizon is a digital version, highly hypertexted with video links. “The magazine is not going away; the magazine is going into the future,” LoBianco said.

Still, StreetWise is more than a magazine, he stressed. It is really a supportive, family-like environment focused on workforce development, housing stability and financial literacy.

Besides the magazine, workforce development has included an in-house computer center where vendors can learn to use email and develop resumes. It is the “dignity of employment” that leads vendors to set money aside, travel to the StreetWise offices, buy magazines wholesale and sell them on the street, he said. “Being able to look themselves in the mirror in the morning and know they earned their money.”

Neighbor Cart produce stands are the latest component in the workforce development, consistent with street vending operations that the organization knows best. “The StreetWise board, staff and participants recognized that we needed to move beyond the magazine, and provide a more complex work model so that vendors could acquire skills that would make them more hireable,” LoBianco said.

Don Smith at his Neighbor Cart on Wilson and Broadway. Don was honored at this year’s ala for his outstanding leadership.

The food carts address not only the need to provide jobs in Chicago but the call for healthy food in “food deserts:” areas that have more fast food choices than fresh foods. There are now five Neighbor Carts mobile produce stands around the city, with five more planned, half of them in food deserts. The cart at Wilson and Broadway – closest to the StreetWise offices – is already turning a profit every day, thanks to the students from nearby Truman College who stop by for an impulse purchase of a banana or an apple, LoBianco said.

Some StreetWise vendors move on to other jobs within two to three years but others stay as long as 13 years, LoBianco added. One long-time vendor just finished getting his Commercial Driver’s License renewed to become a trucker. It was a process that involved passing a background check and a drug test. He will still sell the magazine on the weekends “because that is who he is. He has built up a customer base that is important to him.”
Within six to nine months of becoming a vendor, 80 percent of those living in shelters are able to pay their own rent on a room at an SRO. They are counseled to budget their money and pay by the week – and then by the month – which could mean savings of $150 and an eventual apartment of their own. PNC Bank has provided twice-monthly seminars on financial literacy as well as no-fee checking and savings accounts.

The ability for vendors to connect with social workers at StreetWise takes them even further in their lives. LoBianco told of a vendor who stopped by his office to say “I got it!” – his veteran’s pension. The man was 67 years old and had been eligible for years but had not been able to cut through government red tape.

“It was a StreetWise social worker who helped him,” LoBianco said. “He said, ‘Jim, this is life-changing. With the income from my job and this veteran’s pension I can truly have stability in my housing and stability in my life.’ ”

The Master of Ceremonies was Rob Elgas, a weekday co-anchor and news reporter at NBC5 Chicago. Born in Arlington Heights and raised in Crystal Lake, he coincidentally studied agricultural communications in addition to broadcast journalism at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Elgas has since covered wildfires in San Diego, the White Sox World Series run of 2005 and both winter and summer Olympic Games.

Elgas then introduced keynote speaker Will Allen as “an entrepreneur and inspiration and so many more things.” Allen is the founder and CEO of Growing Power, Inc., and the leading authority on urban agriculture. The son of a Maryland sharecropper, Allen had been the first African-American scholarship athlete at the University of Miami, where he still holds a number of records, Elgas said.

Drafted by both the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association, Allen played for a year with the European league in Belgium. There he reconnected with his farming roots, and grew produce for his teammates. After a career in corporate sales and marketing, he took over operation of his wife’s family farm. When he was looking for a place to sell produce, he bought the last tract in Milwaukee still zoned for agriculture in 1995. There was little fresh food in the neighborhood and Allen found that he was also able to advise kids from the city’s largest public housing project on how to grow vegetables.

Will Allen, CEO and founder of Growing Power, Inc. gave the keynote speech.

Allen was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2010 and that same year joined First Lady Michelle Obama as she launched the White House’s “Let’s Move” program. In 2008, he was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, only the second farmer to be so honored, Elgas said. Allen has 15 outreach centers across the United States, has taught in Ukraine, Macedonia and Kenya and has plans for food centers in Haiti, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He still tests his theories at Growing Power’s original location on Silver Creek Road in Milwaukee.

Growing Power has also operated or advised eight operations in Chicago, from its own seven-acre Iron Street Farm on the South Side to the Chicago Lights Urban Farm established in 2003 by Fourth Presbyterian Church near the Cabrini-Green row houses at West Chicago and North Hudson Avenues.
“Will Allen and Growing Power’s focus on people from low-income communities being able to rise out of poverty through agriculture has changed many people’s lives,” Chicago Urban Lights Urban Farm Program Director Natasha Holbert said in an email.

Holbert continued, “Their leadership in providing healthy organic food within food deserts and the way they’ve pulled together people who are wanting change in the food system put a light on the inequities within that system that has created a movement in which we look at the root causes of hunger and poverty with a completely different lens. Will Allen’s presence at the beginning stages of our community garden and now an Urban Farm is still felt to this day. He is a leader, a visionary, and a cultivator.”

“Food is the most important thing in our lives, though a lot of us take it for granted,” Allen said in his introduction to the StreetWise gala audience. “It’s the one thing that brings us all together; we have to eat food to survive. Of course, a lot of food you eat today is not very good food. Much of our population today eats food that doesn’t do what it should do: heal us.”

The food system is broken, Allen said, because less than one percent of what we eat in Illinois or Wisconsin is locally grown, a reversal of the situation in the 1930s or ’40s. Long transport times mean a loss of food value.

“When food travels a long distance — I’ve tracked it from the Salinas Valley in California – it sits in the field, then goes in a cooler,” Allen said. “The broker calls and it’s shipped across country for three more days and sits in the wholesaler’s coolers a couple days, then on the grocery store shelves. Then unsuspecting customers — regardless of whether they shop at high-end stores — they purchase it to take it home and put it in the refrigerator and they probably don’t eat it that same day. A lot of times that’s 10 or 12 days [since it left the field]; 50 percent of the nutrients have left that food. And today we’re growing in soil that is 50 percent less fertile than it was 50 years ago.”

Fifteen years ago, only farmers saw the urgency, Allen said. But now he sees a “good food revolution,” with the necessary partners aligned for change: politicians, corporate mogols, medical experts.

“I was so pleased tonight in talking to board members that StreetWise started this cart program so that we will be able to get healthy, sustainable food into communities that need that healthy food,” he said. Growing Power also maintains food carts in hospitals and museums, as well as a 2,000-foot organic and natural food store in a food desert.

“Folks said I was crazy to put a market there but it’s really about education,” Allen said. “They come there. They eat this food and we pass out literature.”

Besides health, jobs are a concern to Allen. He said he could see StreetWise branching out from selling publications to operating mobile food carts to growing the food sold on those carts — and creating a lot more jobs in the process. Growing Power takes people off the street for a training program that pays them $12 an hour, with a permanent job and five percent pay increase guaranteed for those who stay at least a year. Allen says he’s confident these workers will be needed, because urban farms are at an all-time high. Chicago in particular is prime territory with its 77,000 vacant lots.

Much of this land is contaminated with lead or arsenic because it was previously used for industry. But rather than dig down into this kind of soil, Allen tops it with two feet of “new soil,” as in compost. Growing Power diverts 22 million pounds of food waste from landfills each year. The mayor and city council in Milwaukee changed policies in order to allow composting on this scale and Chicago would have to do the same in order to “grow soil,” he said.

Composting creates jobs and so does renewable energy, he said. People need produce year-round and so Allen plans to build 100 greenhouses in southeast Wisconsin.

Growing Power is also doing research into aquaculture with the Great Lakes Institute. Yellow perch is popular for its taste but it is often mercury-contaminated and too low in numbers to allow commercial fishing. The fish breeds once a year in the wild; Growing Power would seek to breed it four times a year in order to produce a cheap protein with a one-day turnaround to local markets. A five-story “vertical farm,” in addition, will provide research on crop yields for cities that don’t have vacant lots.

Growing Power’s goal is to take Milwaukee from less than one percent locally-grown food to 10 percent in the next two years. The result will be better health, 10 percent more jobs and 10 percent fewer trucks traveling from Arizona and California, with a positive impact on the environment.
“This is a new industry,” Allen said. “The good news is we have banks and corporate companies interfacing with that. They are at the table. Every company today has a sustainable mission. There are a lot of companies at the table, along with universities and political folks. This wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. This is a revolution.”

Written by StreetWise Editor-In-Chief, Suzanne Hanney

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One Response to “Annual Gala addresses hunger”

  1. +illary J Shaw says:

    More on food deserts at http://www.fooddeserts.org

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