Article and Photograph Posted on The Beverly Review by Kyle Garmes on January 27, 2015
When students from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) visit a downtown homeless shelter this spring, they’ll be carrying backpacks—but they won’t be full of school supplies.
They’ll be filled with food for homeless people suffering from hunger.
In a project that members of the school’s agricultural education class are calling Backpack Foods, they are organizing a local effort to collect as many non-perishable food items as possible to help the homeless as part of the Lead2Feed World Hunger Leadership Challenge.
In the spring, the class of 35 juniors will coordinate with officials at a homeless shelter downtown to distribute 250 backpacks of food for the homeless.
“It’ll be very heartwarming,” said student Ashton Brown, of Beverly, “because it’s just terrible that [hunger in Chicago] exists. It shouldn’t be this way.”
According to JaMonica Marion, CHSAS agricultural education teacher, she is overseeing students in her class as they work on the project and finalize plans with a shelter. But, Marion said, the students are fully in charge of the entire project, and they are working hard to make it a success.
Brittany Nash, a student from Mt. Greenwood, said the project also provides a sobering perspective for her and her classmates as to how fortunate they are.
“Here at school, we’re at least guaranteed two meals. For them, they’re not guaranteed anything,” Nash said. “And it’ll be a really cool experience, knowing the [stage] of life we’re in right now compared to those who are out on the streets.”
Marion said she is in her third year of working with Lead2Feed to coordinate projects at CHSAS. Students in the agricultural education pathway at the school, she said, came up with about 15 ideas as to what this year’s project would be before they decided on the Backpack Foods campaign.
The students are hoping to make a positive impact on a big problem in the city.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) reported the following on its Web site:
“An August 2014 analysis by CCH estimates that 138,575 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of the 2013-14 school year. This is 19.4 percent more than the 116,042 people who were homeless a year earlier.
“People living in families totaled 70,028, or 50.5 percent of Chicago’s homeless population. There were 48,743 children (35 percent of the city’s total, estimated at 138,575) and 21,285 parents or grandparents (15 percent).
“Unaccompanied youth (ages 14-17) is estimated at 4,500 (3 percent). Single adults totaled 64,047 (46 percent). This adult total includes 7,686 unaccompanied youth who are ages 18 to 21.”
Equally distressing, according to officials with the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), is that hunger is a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of people in Chicago and Cook County.
A study, “Hunger in America 2014,” cited on the GCFD Web site reports that 812,100 people receive food from one of the GCFD member programs, serving more than 232,100 households annually.
One aspect of the hunger problem that some of her students have witnessed, Marion said, is the existence of “food deserts” in the Chicago neighborhoods in which they live.
According to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”
Participating in the Lead2Feed initiative gives students a way to reduce hunger in their city and enhances their high school education by providing opportunities for leadership in organization and management.
“This is their baby,” Marion said. “So, they do everything from picking the name, coming up with a slogan, coming up with their flyers. And they have to communicate, and they have to realize that every person in their group has an equal part, that you have to take every person along with you.”
Three promotional efforts to support the project are planned, Marion said. The first started on Jan. 26 when CHSAS students began collecting non-perishable items.
A school dance is being planned in which students can donate items for admission and make a monetary donation.
Monetary donations to the project will also go toward purchasing the backpacks that will be filled with food and given to each homeless person.
Finally, as part of an “overall awareness” effort, Marion said, posters throughout the school will spread the word.
“Seeing that we’re only teaching about the hunger crisis in the junior classes, they want to make sure that all 700 students in the school are aware of the hunger crisis that’s going on in the city of Chicago,” Marion said.
Local businesses, Marion said, are being sought to be donation drop-off points.
She said the best non-perishable items for people to donate are those that don’t require a can-opener and feature packaging that is easy for a person to open.
Students said they enjoy being in charge of a worthy project.
“I really feel like it shows what leadership skills we have,” Nash said. “This is a project run by us.”
It’s sad, Nash said, when she’s downtown and sees people begging for food or change. With the Backpack Foods project, she wants to deliver a kind message to such people:
“Here you go; here’s something. I hope your day’s better.”
The harsh winter weather endured by the homeless in Chicago, Brown said, gives him cause to worry.
“You know how cold it is here,” Brown said. “It was below zero a couple weeks ago. The people who are downtown who are homeless who are sleeping under their coats, their tents … it’s just devastating.”
LaDeja Powell, of Mt. Greenwood, concurred with her classmate—and provided additional focus on the impact of hunger and homelessness.
“Especially seeing them with their kids,” Powell said, “and they have no place to go.”