Recycling woes threaten Resource Center food program

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • December 18, 2008 @ 12:00 PM

The recent collapse in the market for recyclables could spell the end of a unique food redistribution program in Chicago.

In keeping with its mission of sustainability, the Resource Center has been delivering organic produce, baked goods and other perishable items to Chicago social service agencies since the early 1980s. It’s funded the program through the modest surplus from its five drop-off recycling centers.

However, the board of the non-profit educational, environmental organization announced recently that it might shutter its recycling centers in mid-January, says center director Ken Dunn.

“The value of all commodities except aluminum have fallen to zero or very near zero,” says Dunn. “Our programs, which paid our own costs and generated a small surplus for other programs, are threatened.”

The Resource Center’s perishable food recovery program differs from other food pantries, which distribute a lot of processed foods, says Dunn.

“We’ll pick up fresh and perishable foods, say hams from local caterers, and take it to soup kitchens right away,” says Dunn, who notes that though canned goods aren’t shunned, there’s a heavy focus on healthy and organic edibles.

Because fresh food has a short shelf life, the center’s van makes daily rounds. Dunn estimates his staff shuttles 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of food per day from groceries, caterers and even food stylists to nearby neighborhood centers.

Paper, the center’s largest recyclable by volume, used to pull in $100 to $130 per ton, says Dunn. The profits were enough to pay for drivers and insurance costs and a dedicated van.

But the economic downturn has decimated the Chinese market for recycled paper and cardboard, formerly used to package goods for American consumers.

Thanks to a processor who is accepting the paper at cost of bundling, the center has avoided having to truck their waste to a landfill.

Since its founding over three decades ago, the center, based at 222 E. 135th Pl., has pioneered creative ways to marry recycling, urban agriculture and economic development in low-income neighborhoods.

The food distribution program, begun in the early 1980’s, is an offshoot of the same urban agriculture program that produced City Farm, says Dunn.

The program assists six or eight regular clients, and adding another 20 to 30 recipients as availability and need dictates, says Vicki Fowler, project manager.

Fowler says constant communication and strategic thinking are key to the highly tailored program’s success.

“One day I’ll have a whole van packed with pineapples,” says Fowler. “Obviously, this is most suitable for a place that feeds hundreds.”

She’s also found herself delivering bunches of fresh ginger root to the Women Infants and Children program in Humboldt Park, which offers nutritional counseling and health services.

“The cool thing is I sometimes get specialized items that some spots might not know how to use,” says Fowler. “Here they teach people how to use foods that might not appear on the typical grocery list.”

Donors number over 50, and include a number of Whole Foods groceries, which are generally prompt about pulling foods before their expiration dates, says Dunn.

Charles Hawkins, food pantry coordinator for Chicago Uptown Ministry on Sheridan Road, says clients look forward to items like bakery goods, yogurts, eggs and butter that Fowler brings.

“Our low-income families get good nourishing food that doesn’t have too many preservatives,” says Hawkins. “And they can choose, too. Do they want chicken hotdogs, turkey hot dogs, wheat bread? Choice is something they don’t always get.”

Dunn is hoping that donors will step up to support the two programs.

He estimates that $1,000 in monthly contributions could sustain two of the recycling centers, allowing them to generate food program support when the market recovers. Two thousand dollars per month could independently fund the food program, he says.

In the long run, he’d like to see the city get more involved in supporting the program.

“Up until the last century, the safety net has always been based in local communities,” says Dunn. “Now food pantries aren’t flexible—they get funding from corporate donors and the philanthropic community, but it doesn’t expand as the need expands. We’ve got to rethink the way we do food recovery and relief.”

Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News