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Top Box Foods Responds to Surge in Food Insecurity Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Top Box Foods Responds to Surge in Food Insecur...

Source: Better Chicago By: Kerry Kasper | Sponsored Posted: June 16, 2020   From well-manicured suburban lawns to blighted neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, hunger knows no bounds, especially, it’s become...

Top Box Foods Responds to Surge in Food Insecur...

Source: Better Chicago By: Kerry Kasper | Sponsored Posted: June 16, 2020   From well-manicured suburban lawns to blighted neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, hunger knows no bounds, especially, it’s become...



Food Deliveries Help Seniors During Pandemic, Evanston Now, June 2020

Source: Evanston Now

By: Jeff Hirsh

Posted: June 12, 2020


The new normal for grocery shopping. Masks. Social distancing. And the checkout clerk behind a plexiglass shield. The new normal for many low income seniors and individuals with disabilities? Not even being able to go to the store, because they’re in high-risk groups for COVID-19.

With that in mind, the Housing Authority of Cook County this morning delivered 100 boxes of fresh groceries to residents of the Authority’s Jane Perlman building in Evanston.

Toni Preckwinkle.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who joined several other elected officials at Perlman, called the delivery an “innovative solution” to help those facing food insecurity.

The boxes contained fresh fruit and vegetables, whole wheat bread and poultry. They even included something else absolutely vital these days: face masks.

The Housing Authority is providing similar deliveries to a total of 1,800 households at its buildings in Cook County.

Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty said food insecurity for those with low income was already a problem before the coronavirus pandemic.  “Many people were on the precipice” before this, he said, and the COVID crisis has only made the situation worse.

While middle and high income residents may think nothing of getting groceries delivered, for low income residents it can be a challenge. The Illinois legislature recently changed the SNAP (food stamps) program to let participants buy groceries on line.

However, the HACC officials said, only two companies, Walmart and Amazon, have joined the program. “These limited option can be cost-prohibitive and inaccessible for households in certain zip codes,” the agency said in a news release. Today’s Housing Authority delivery program helps fill that gap.

The deliveries are done in partnership with Top Box Foods, a volunteer-based program which helps provide healthful food to low income individuals.


View Original Story on Evanston Now

Program seeks to fight hunger in Lake County, Chicago Tribune, September 2014

Source: Chicago Tribune

By: Sheryl DeVore and Special to the Tribune

Posted: Sep 02, 2014 at 5:38 pm


Barb Karacic said that just a few miles from her Lake Forest home, children don't have enough to eat and don't get fresh fruits and vegetables.

"It doesn't make sense to see other kids in the same area you live in hungry," she said.

The community leader who works on hunger issues in Lake County said that's why she is one of those embracing a new six-month pilot program called Top Box Foods, designed to provide fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen meats at wholesale prices to those in need.

Kenilworth resident Chris Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, started Top Box in Chicago two years ago with his wife, Sheila. The Kennedys plan to expand the program this month into Lake County, with an eye toward also moving into other areas including DuPage and McHenry counties.

"There's a lot of hidden, secret poverty in Lake County," Chris Kennedy said. "There are a lot of areas that are highly isolated. Lake County is home to Illinois' richest communities and some of its poorest. Hopefully we can bridge the gap."

With help from Northern Illinois Food Bank and Lake County community leaders including Karacic, Top Box Foods will sell boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen quality meats and other foods at about 40 percent less than grocery store prices.

The produce will come from the same place that supplies Sunset Foods in Libertyville and Deerfield, said Wendy Warden, president of the Avon Township Community Foundation.

Each month on different dates, boxes costing $10 to $20 each depending on size and content will be delivered to three sites in Lake County. A $10 produce box, for example, will contain fresh potatoes, onions, carrots and two additional vegetables and several varieties of fresh fruit.

The first deliveries and sales will be made from 9 to 11 a.m. Sept. 13 at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Round Lake, from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 17 at North Chicago Public Library and from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 20 at Carmen-Buckner Elementary School in Waukegan.

Karacic, who serves on the Illinois Commission to End Hunger, said she expects at least 400 Lake County families to take advantage of the program in September, with those numbers increasing as the word spreads.

Dates are being set for the next five months after that. Cash, credit and debit cards, as well as SNAP/LINK cards will be accepted.

Anyone can purchase the boxes.

But the program is especially designed for a segment of the population that doesn't qualify for SNAP/LINK benefits but is on a tight budget that doesn't allow for buying healthy food at grocery stores, Karacic said. The kinds of people who might most be able to benefit include working families earning minimum wage and senior citizens on a fixed income, she said.

In addition, Karacic said the program will get healthy foods to seven areas in Lake County labeled as food deserts. The Centers for Disease Control defines food deserts as areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up a healthy diet.

Top Box Foods "will be a tremendous benefit for the community," Karacic said. "It will offer healthy choices and healthy food at an affordable price. It will make people feel better about themselves because there's a fee. They're not just getting a handout."

Karacic is working with two other community leaders, Cindy Pagano and Shields Township Supervisor Cynthia Maloney, on the project, helping spread the word and gather volunteers, said Linda Loving, government outreach liaison for Top Box Foods.

"There's a lot of need in Lake County," Loving said. "You have to fulfill certain criteria to get food from food banks. Not everyone can walk into a food pantry and get food."

In Lake County, according to Top Box Foods, a family of four with a household income of more than $30,654 is ineligible for public benefits. More than 10 percent of Lake County residents are at risk of hunger, according to Top Box Foods officials.

When families are strapped to make ends meet, the first foods they stop buying are fresh fruits, vegetables and protein, Loving said.

People living in food deserts often buy cheap, unhealthy meals at fast-food places, added Karacic. Now they will have an alternative, she said.

Top Box Foods in Lake County is based on a successful program in Minneapolis, called Fare for All, while Top Box in Chicago is designed after a program in Atlanta, Kennedy said.

In Chicago, people pre-order the boxes, then pick them up at 60 different sites.

"Each delivery cycle, we sell as many as 2,000 boxes, Loving said. "Since May of 2012, we've sold just under 30,000 boxes, about 294,000 pounds of food and 113,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables."

Kennedy said he worked with distributors such as Mundelein-based Ruprecht Co., which supply food to restaurants and catering services, and now supply frozen meats to Top Box Foods at wholesale prices.

Kennedy, former president of Merchandise Mart Properties and former chairman of the board of the Chicago Food Depository, said he has "mixed feelings" about the success of the Top Box Foods program.

"We feel good because we're expanding, but the more we expand, the more we recognize how challenging life is for a majority of people living in our community. All over, the same struggle is playing out. There's increased economic isolation" in the U.S., he said.

He said fighting hunger issues is important to him because "it's hard to grow up in Bobby Kennedy's house and not get a taste of (the value of community service)."

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View Original Story on the Chicago Tribune

Chris Kennedy's Ambitious Food Project, Chicago Tribune, August 2012

Source: Chicago Tribune

By: Jodi S. Cohen and Chicago Tribune reporter

Posted: Aug 15, 2012 at 12:00 am


On a recent Saturday morning, Chris Kennedy was standing on a sidewalk outside a South Side storefront church, talking about french fries, vegetables and the benefits of ground turkey over ground beef.

It had been a year since he'd stepped down as president of Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. and quietly started a nonprofit, Top Box Foods, with the mission of bringing high-quality, low-cost food to needy families in Chicago and eventually around the country.

Kennedy met customers as they walked up to a white delivery truck parked beside their churches, paid mostly with cash or their food stamp debit cards, and left with boxes full of frozen food or fresh fruit and vegetables. He worked alongside volunteers wearing T-shirts with the organization's motto: "Good food for good people."

A son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Chris Kennedy says fighting hunger is his passion. He's spent the past few months traveling to churches and community groups on the city's South and West sides to spread the word about his latest project.

On this particular morning, dressed in a polo shirt with the Top Box logo, Kennedy greeted customer Charlotte Mims, 52, who had set aside $36 in her tight budget for the "Family Top Box" — 17 pounds of meat and fish, frozen vegetables and a pie. Kennedy, who lives in the elite North Shore suburb of Kenilworth, steered the conversation to common ground as he talkedjoked about how he has used the food in the boxes.

"I'm still working through the fries in my box. There are a lot of them," Kennedy told Mims outside True Light Baptist Church in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.

Kennedy, 49, emphasizes that Top Box is not a charity, but a way to get discounted groceries to families who live in areas that either lack grocery stores or have an abundance of fast food. Top Box purchases the food, boxes it in various combinations and then, once a month, delivers it to churches and organizations in mostly low-income neighborhoods. The boxes cost $19 to $39.

Kennedy made an initial investment of $150,000 to get Top Box started, and the organization is designed to be self-sustaining. Customers' payments cover the cost of food and delivery, including a donation to the host site equal to 5 percent of the proceeds. When Top Box got under way in May, 300 boxes were delivered to about 20 sites. This past weekend, about 1,000 boxes were delivered to 30 churches and community groups. The sites ranged from small neighborhood churches with a few dozen families to some of the city's largest, including Trinity United Church of Christ and Salem Baptist Church.

While Top Box is new, Kennedy said he has been thinking about the concept since he moved to Illinois a quarter-century ago. In the interim, he has run the Merchandise Mart, chaired the board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and considered a run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

He is a member of the Kennedy family who has dabbled in politics but never run for elected office, so it's not far-fetched to wonder if politics will be in his future. When asked, he doesn't rule it out. But for now, he said, he is focused on food.

Speaking to a crowd of about 20 church leaders last month in Humboldt Park, Kennedy described his background and how his career path led him to start a nonprofit focused on hunger relief.

"Twenty-five years ago, I dreamed of coming to Illinois to learn about the fundamentals of food distribution so that I could contribute to the fight against hunger," Kennedy said.

Citizens Energy

Kennedy was in college when his oldest brother, Joseph Kennedy II, started Citizens Energy, a nonprofit oil company based in Boston that uses the profits from commercial ventures to provide discounted heating oil to poor families. His brother later was elected to the U.S. House and spent a dozen years in office. Chris Kennedy spent time at Citizens and realized that, like his brother, he wanted to one day run a self-sustaining business that helped people. He chose the food industry.

In 1986, after graduating from Boston College, he moved to Decatur to learn about food production at Archer Daniels Midland, working first at a small grain elevator buying corn and soybeans from farmers. He also was an ADM runner at the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

He left ADM to work at the Merchandise Mart, one of the world's largest commercial buildings, which was then owned by the Kennedy family. He was there for 25 years, starting as an analyst and working his way up to president. When he stepped down from the Mart in July 2011, he was vague about his plans, telling a reporter that he wanted to start a business and didn't want to be a "one-trick pony."

The months since have been busy.

He is chairman of the University of Illinois board of trustees, appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn about three years ago to lead the university out of a scandal over its admissions practices. The university has faced troubles under Kennedy's watch, too, including a faculty mutiny over the president hired by Kennedy and the other trustees, and ultimately that president's resignation.

Kennedy also is overseeing a potentially controversial $1 billion development at his family's historic Wolf Point property along the Chicago River. He is chairman of his nephew Joseph Kennedy III's congressional campaign in Massachusetts and of the private holding company that manages the Kennedys' wealth, Park Agency Inc. in New York.

But the 1,941-square-foot office space he uses in the Mart has been largely taken over by Top Box Foods, where a small staff and dozens of college-age volunteers have built a nonprofit from scratch. The out-of-the-way office, decorated with Kennedy family history, is accessible through the sandwich shop Au Bon Pain.

Kennedy said he wanted to keep the organization under the radar until he was sure it would work.

"I needed some time to understand how I would make the supply chain work. I needed breathing room," he said.

Pride in product

The month he left the Mart, he reached out to Craig Dooley, a senior vice president of strategy and communications at the Mart.

Over the next few months, they mulled Kennedy's idea. Where would they get the food? How would they market and sell it? How could they deliver food in an economical way? Was the concept scalable?

"It is easy to get cheap, bad food, but it is more challenging to get inexpensive, good food," said Dooley, Top Box's founding director and vice president. "We needed to be proud about what we were selling."

Kennedy said he used his experience, reputation and connections. He already knew the founders of Peapod, and they agreed to provide fresh fruit and vegetables at a reduced price. He met with distributors, including Mundelein-based Ruprecht Co., that supply unbranded food to restaurants and catering services and partnered with them to provide frozen food.

Kennedy and his team brought samples to churches to solicit feedback as they pitched the idea. They learned that ground turkey was preferred over ground beef and that nobody wanted okra. They hosted breakfasts with pastors and preached about Top Box during Sunday services.

The Rev. Larue Kidd of True Light Baptist Church said he met Kennedy at a breakfast meeting this spring. "My people love it," he said of the program. "This has really been a blessing to our church and our community."

Top Box estimates the boxes cost about half of what they would at a retail store, taking into account that some customers buy groceries at a chain grocery store while others go to a corner market, and pricing depends on brand and quality. The Tribune priced the $36 Family Top Box at about $55 at one chain grocery store.

On delivery days, each host site is given a one-hour window when customers can pick up preordered boxes. Led by Kennedy's wife, Sheila, volunteers take payments and help customers carry boxes to their cars.

As the program expands, one challenge will be finding enough volunteers to manage the sites or making sure each location can handle the process on its own, Kennedy said.

"If we go to that kind of scale, I don't have enough friends to show up on a weekend. ... We want to strengthen the capacity of the churches," said Kennedy, who regularly attends Mass with his family at Faith, Hope and Charity Catholic church in Winnetka.

'Food deserts'

Kennedy's organization comes at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel has emphasized the problem of "food deserts" — areas that lack grocery stores or healthy food options — and various programs are under way to address it. An estimated 400,000 Chicago residents live in places where it's easier to buy a fast-food burger than an apple. John Weidman, deputy executive director of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on making healthy food available to everyone, said a program like Top Box is part of the patchwork necessary to address food need.

"There are lots of folks out there who are at the point where they have no money to buy food, and they are relying on emergency food," Weidman said. "Efforts to make it more affordable are really important."

While Angela Odoms-Young praised the program for increasing access to nutritional, affordable food, she encouraged Top Box to help the communities through economic development — by buying the food from local farmers or employing community members, for example.

"There are so many people coming from outside communities saying, 'We have the solution for you,' and there needs to be more of a role within the communities to really start playing a part in running it," said Odoms-Young, an assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

On pickup day in the city's Washington Park neighborhood, Lonzilla Davis was the first in line at the KLEO Center along South 55th Street. For $19, Davis purchased the "Garden Box," which includes 10 pounds of apples, pears, strawberries, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes and carrots.

"It was delicious. The grapes tasted like they had sugar in them," said Davis, who usually shops at a Fairplay grocery store. "For $19, you can't beat it."

At New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church along South 91st Street, 22-year-old Tiffany Slaughter picked up the $22 "For One" box, which included seven frozen meals such as sesame chicken.

"I eat them every day for lunch," she said. "I lost 4 pounds."

"Good for you," replied Kennedy, who follows a gluten-free diet. "We will have to call you up and get your advice."

Political aspirations?

Kennedy said he's busier now than when he ran the Mart, in part because he has less control over his schedule.

Being a Kennedy, his name has been floated frequently for a variety of offices, perhaps most seriously for U.S. Senate in 2010. When Kennedy opted not to run, he said the decision was difficult but that he chose family — he has four kids ages 13 to 21 — over politics.

Asked whether running for elected office is in his future, Kennedy demurred and joked that he's glad his wife didn't hear the question.

"Those decisions are often guided by other people's behavior," Kennedy said. "I'm not even thinking about that now."

The death of his uncle Edward Kennedy in 2009 marked the first time in decades that a Kennedy is not serving in the U.S. Senate. In Illinois, longtime Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin's term is up in 2014, and his office has said that as of now, the senator plans to seek re-election. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke in January, does not face re-election until 2016.

Kennedy recently said that his experience working on family members' campaigns helped him figure out how to gain entry and trust in the South and West side communities for Top Box. Those relationships could prove useful if he ever runs for office.

"This is what I have wanted to do," Kennedy said. "Would I be happier doing something else? I doubt it."

And with that, he helped fold up the tables and chairs at the last church stop of the day, and carried away a few leftover food boxes to be used during his next sales pitch.


View Original Story on the Chicago Tribune

Contact Top Box Foods with Press Inquiries