Fighting Hunger Today, Creating Economic Opportunities for Tomorrow
by Terra Brockman
photographs courtesy of A Just Harvest
As summer’s abundance bursts forth in torrents of tomatoes and mountains of melons, it’s easy to forget that many people go hungry. In America. In Chicago. Even in your neighborhood.
But Marilyn Pagán-Banks never forgets. Marilyn is the tireless and passionate executive director of A Just Harvest, an anti-hunger and community empowerment organization in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. But she is quick to point out this is not about her, and that “from day one, we have done our work in partnership.”
Partner organizations range from congregations to businesses to civic groups, and they help get and serve food, mentor young adults and do countless other things from graphic design to grant-writing. “We cannot do all this work by ourselves,” Marilyn emphasizes. “Working collaboratively with other people and other organizations is key.”
When I mention that many Rogers Park residents I’ve spoken with don’t know about A Just Harvest, don’t know they feed hundreds of people every day, she winces slightly. “People say Chicago is made up of neighborhoods, but actually it’s made up of communities, which can be very separate even when in the same neighborhood,” she explains. “Although we’re in the Rogers Park neighborhood, we’re north of Howard. And ‘North of Howard’ raises red flags because it is a very isolated area, with subsidized housing, poverty and gang violence. Same neighborhood; very different communities.”
Marilyn firmly believes that “if we’re not all doing OK, we’re not OK. I am not OK with the fact that there is poverty and violence and hunger in a city and a nation as powerful and rich as ours. Our position as an organization is that we’re going to work until we all have plenty, and no one is left in need. Poverty is not a poor person’s problem; it’s a societal problem.”
To attack the root causes of poverty and hunger, the organization works on many fronts, all of which revolve around the “just” in A Just Harvest: food justice, economic justice and equal justice and opportunity for all. The core program is the Community Kitchen, which pre-dated A Just Harvest by some 20 years. It was, and still is, Chicago’s only self-standing program providing a hot meal to people 365 days a year, no questions asked. In January 2016, Marilyn says, over 4,000 people from 47 zip codes were served.
And while food is crucial, the kitchen is much more than a feeding program. “It’s about open hospitality and people coming together,” according to A Just Harvest board member Rev. Dr. Kirsten Peachey. “Anyone can come, sit down, break bread together.”
The kitchen “focuses on immediate needs, breaking bread together and doing it in a way that builds community and honors people’s humanity,” Kirsten says. The bright murals on the walls and colorful tablecloths add to the sense of warm hospitality. But simply putting food on those tables is not enough, Kirsten says. “The next step, after meeting immediate needs, is to address the systemic injustices that make it hard for people to get by.”
When I ask Marilyn what is the greatest need of the community, she doesn’t hesitate: “It’s jobs, access to jobs, livingwage jobs—so you can afford to pay the rent and still eat.”
The fact that the community kitchen has been serving nourishing hot meals in a warm, welcoming environment since 1985 is rich in paradox. While meeting the basic human need for food for more than 30 years is a very good thing on the one hand, Marilyn is acutely aware of the other hand: “That the kitchen has been going every day for many years is not a sign of success,” she counters. “People keep coming for food because they have no jobs, no money.”
While not every poor person is hungry, nearly every hungry person is poor. Simply put, poverty causes hunger. This is why A Just Harvest has developed many outreach and advocacy projects to address the root causes of poverty. They fall under two main umbrella programs: Northside P.O.W.E.R. (People Organized to Work, Educate and Restore) does community organizing for social justice, and The Genesis Project does outreach and advocacy around economic development, focusing on community gardens, aquaponics and urban agriculture.
In Marilyn’s initial conversations with Genesis Project director Anthony Boatman, she said, “There’s no lack of food in our community kitchen each day, so why grow food?”
Anthony responded that hands-on activities were important, and that while the program uses aquaponics to raise fish and produce, its underlying work is about job training, life-skills training, leadership development and creating income. Marilyn said OK, but warned, “If we’re not creating jobs out of this aquaponics, I’m not doing it!”
But Anthony’s vision prevailed, and over the past five years, 45 people have gone through the Genesis program. Marilyn says they learned how to grow microgreens, vegetables and other plants and how to prepare food in the kitchen. Many also got their food handlers’ certificates, and all learned basic life and job skills so they can get work in restaurants or food service.
Marilyn says that “Anthony brought the Genesis Project to life because of his ability to be in relationship, and to think outside the box. He’d run into a roadblock, and he’d say, ‘OK, and in the meantime, here’s what we’ll do.’” As an example, she says that although the original goal was to work with people from 18 to 30 years old, when that proved difficult, Anthony said, “In the meantime, let’s work with kids.”
One of the volunteers Anthony partnered with to work with kids in the Exposing Roots program at the Gale School greenhouse is Tonia Andreina. Tonia says many of the kids were failing in school, but when Anthony talked with them about growing plants, and about how “the greenhouse work developed business savvy, they paid attention.” In February, Tonia assisted the children as they began planting spinach and onions and she began a hands-on horticulture curriculum.
Just a couple of months after Tonia started working with Anthony at the Gale School, he passed away unexpectedly. Tonia, Marilyn and the entire community were devastated. “Anthony orchestrated countless community members to improve their quality of life,“ Tonia said. “He was truly a hero, a revolutionary. He fostered each person’s positive aspects to help them grow and flourish. He walked the walk, and showed us how to change the community.”
The next time the children met in the greenhouse, Tonia said, “Marilyn came to our circle. We all talked about Anthony, and she said, ‘The seeds Anthony planted here will come to fruition.’”
And they are. In late March, Tonia wrote: “I’m happy to say the kids of the Gale Exposing Roots group know and could tell you about: the five things plants need to survive (Light, Air, Water, Nutrients, Soil—LAWNS!); the six main parts of a plant (roots, stem, leaf, flower, fruit, seed); how to start cool crops in a greenhouse (and what cool vs. hot crops are); good watering technique; the philosophy of a circle/ nutrient cycle (life, death, rebirth); how to vermicompost in a worm bin; and the processes of composting, germination and photosynthesis. I’m really proud of them!”
“A lot of folks want to see change,” says Marilyn. “They want no crime, no poverty, no hunger. But you can’t wish it away. You’ve got to invest into it to make it happen, and we are inviting people to invest and become part of this project to build community.”
What You Can Do
A JUST HARVEST has no shortage of ways for you to invest, whether in time, money, expertise, mentorship, or vision. Here are a few ways to get involved.
Serving Meals in the Community Kitchen. Volunteers are needed every day of the year to plate, serve and bus tables in a restaurant-style setting. To schedule, call 773-262-2297 ext. 24 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Organizing for a Fair Economy. You can help raise awareness and advocate for social and economic justice through Northside P.O.W.E.R. Volunteer activities include neighborhood canvassing, lobbying days and participating in specific actions such as advocating for a living wage. For more information, contact Herf Yamaya at 773-262-2297 ext. 22 or email email@example.com
Mentoring Young Adults and Facilitating Community and Economic Development. If you have experience running a small business, managing finances, catering, or gardening, the Genesis Project can use your expertise and skills. To learn more, call 773-262-2297 ext. 24 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
And more . . . A Just Harvest needs volunteers with plumbing, painting, carpentry, graphic design, photography, videography, administrative, fundraising, grant-writing, communication and other skills. As Marilyn Pagán-Banks says, “Whether you can help with program development, program evaluation, grant-writing, or administrative assistance, all are needed and all are welcome.”
For more information about volunteering: ajustharvest.org/volunteer/
Terra Brockman is a food justice advocate, farmer, author and regular contributor to Edible Chicago. She can usually be found on Saturdays at Henry’s Farm stand at the Evanston farmers market.
Anthony Boatman, 1956 – 2016
“What’s going on?”
by Ken Divelbess
photograph courtesy of A Just Harvest
This phrase often preceded Anthony Boatman as he walked into a room. Said in a baritone with words elongated to express affection, it was generally followed by a cross-chest bear hug and an immediate departure into his next idea for programming or fundraising.
Deeply committed to Rogers Park and a prolific networker, Anthony worked to serve those on the margins of gang activity and poverty in Rogers Park, particularly vulnerable youth.
“Sometimes, he was hard on me, when he expected me to do something I wasn’t comfortable with, like telling my story to others,” says Iris Hawk, 24, one of Anthony’s apprentices.
“He broke it out of me, and now it’s something I’m good with.”
As the first director of A Just Harvest’s The Genesis Project, the community and economic development arm of the organization, Anthony helped plant the seeds, literally, of a flourishing community garden initiative.
“Anthony always had a vision for young people he worked with, usually months or even years before they knew it,” says Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks, A Just Harvest’s executive director.
Anthony also hated to see people let down, like the time a charter bus mistakenly went to 7649 South instead of North Paulina, leaving costumed kids on the verge of a Halloween meltdown. That is, until Anthony rushed to the store, came back with bags of candy, and hosted an impromptu celebration inside A Just Harvest’s offices.
A ward of the state growing up, Anthony remarked how he’d “lived in nearly every juvenile home in Illinois” and had to fight his way up each time he moved to a new home. After completing high school, Anthony served in the military and worked for a number of years as a loan recovery officer before joining the anti-violence organization Operation Ceasefire. He was with Operation Ceasefire for two years before joining A Just Harvest.
Anthony’s son said it best from the pulpit at Anthony’s funeral—surrounded by dozens of children, grandchildren, and loved ones—in describing the impact of his father’s life.
“All you need to do is look at this stage to see the cycles of poverty Anthony broke,” said Anthony Jr.
“That’s his legacy.”
In honor of Anthony’s life, A Just Harvest will provide inaugural Anthony Boatman “Planting Seeds” Scholarship Awards to two young recipients in Rogers Park in July of this year.
Ken Divelbess is a resident of Skokie and communicator with A Just Harvest.