Lifelong Evanston resident, chef, and activist Bruce Allen King is a quality-control technician at Brett Anthony Foods in Elk Grove Village, a company that produces soups and more for Whole Foods, and whose owner, Brett Stein, also lives in Evanston.
Serendipitously, right before the pandemic hit, Whole Foods revamped all their soup recipes.
When the new soups 'went live,' King says, the company had an abundance of the previous soups left in inventory and available for donation.
So King went to work.
First, he delivered 300 gallons of soup (I know because my son and I helped) to caterers Feast & Imbibe/ Soul & Smoke, Jennifer's Edibles, Inc, Teertsemasesottehg, to Connections for the Homeless, and to friends, family and community members in need of food. Then he started delivering 1,200 individually packed prepared dinners, also surplus from Brett Anthony.
With his weighted-down car almost scraping the road and Brett Anthony providing more food to distribute, Bruce realized he needed help. He reached out to fellow Evanstonians Darlene Murray-Cannon and her husband Ronnie Cannon who knew a guy with a truck (Evanston Township High School (ETHS) graduate Erich Muhammed), and now they're an unstoppable team delivering soups and dinners as they become available.
"The way it works," Darlene explained, "Bruce lets Erich know when food is available. Erich picks it up. I communicate with the organizations and individuals who need it and we schedule distribution."
Each week, Erich drives the 35 miles each way from Evanston to Elk Grove Village to load his truck (want to donate to help cover his costs? email Darlene at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Right now, the team is focusing on Evanston/Skokie School District 65. Today, for example, the team will feed 65 families from Oakton Elementary School. Last week, they provided food to 27 families at Chute Middle School. Next week they’ll be at Willard and Lincolnwood.
"We've also sent 24 gallons of soup to the west side of Chicago for families and eight gallons to A Just Harvest on Howard and Paulina," says Darlene.
At the schools, four tables are set up in the parking lot, one for each meal type (Chicken Parmesan, Chicken Milanaise, and Turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes), and one specifically for soups.
"Our team of volunteers, including Erich, myself, Trisha Connolly, Tina Foster and Linta Carter Weathers take families through the line, box the food up, and send them on their way," Darlene explains.
Often, there is soup left over that is available for others who may need it. If you'd like to get on their list, email Darlene at email@example.com.
Bruce, whose grandfather fled to Evanston from Abbeville, South Carolina in 1910 to avoid being lynched, now lives with and cares for his 91-year-old father Roy and says he's committed to helping his village, Evanston's Black community.
"Sharing is caring," he says. "I am born and raised in Evanston and I feel it is all of our responsibility to step up and help out when and where we can. If not me, who? I'm humbled and honored to work with a group of people who so readily step up and help out where they can."
Darlene, like Bruce, was born and raised in Evanston. Her mother’s family, the Watkins, came here from Alabama around 1953. Her dad came to Evanston around the same time from Augusta, Georgia. She says she stepped up because she understands that families were struggling with food long before the pandemic and will continue to struggle when the pandemic subsides.
"My family is fortunate to have stable housing, food, clothing and heat, those are things that we don’t take those things for granted, because we realize so many families are homeless and struggling," she says.
"The pandemic shined a bright light on struggling families in America," Darlene says. "It’s a blessing that we’re able to distribute food to families, but this only addresses one aspect of the problem here in Evanston. Families need affordable housing. We have multi-generational families living together trying to survive. Long-term, we can no longer ignore that families need help and this must addressed immediately."
As for Brett Stein, he emigrated to the States from South Africa to attend Kendall College for Culinary School, and started his culinary career at Food For Thought Catering on Central Street at the spot where Curt's Cafe now stands (his wife Sarah Ghantous is Curt's development director!). Eleven years ago, starting at ground zero, he build Brett Anthony Foods into a company that now employs more than 300 people.
Two of Brett's three children attended Chute, one of the most economically disadvantaged schools in the district.
"While our kids were at Chute, we became friends with Principal Jim McHolland, and his dedication to Chute students and families continues to inspire," he says.
Stein says he's extremely grateful for what he and his team have achieved, but, he says, "I have not lost sight of what it was like to have nothing and to struggle. That there are children in our community who don’t have enough food to eat is heartbreaking, and I am so glad that we can help with these donations."
[photos: Erich Erlich and his truck; Bruce King delivering soup to Feast & Imbibe/Soul & Smoke; and Darlene Cannon]