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Reflections Shared Stories Stories of Food Sustainability

My Past Helps Shape Others’ Futures

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Curator’s Note: As told by James Lee, Resident District Manager at Chartwells HED, to the Food for Thought editorial staff, and used with permission.

There are times in your life where something happens, and you know it is going to be an experience you’ll never forget. For me, one of those moments was the very first time I delivered food as part of our initial food recovery efforts, when working as Executive Chef at DePaul University.

You see, as a child of first-generation Korean immigrants, food always played an important part of my life. Not just culturally, but for everyday survival. These childhood experiences, and how I was brought up, meant there was no question about which industry what I going to find myself in – food was always going to be ‘my thing’. But it wasn’t just about the food; growing up with very little, I knew that helping others, particularly those in need, was also going to play a huge part of my life.

And so I went to college – and culinary school – and became a chef, taking the opportunity to volunteer in soup kitchens whenever I could. It was working in restaurants, however, where I really noticed the amount of food that was being wasted. When you see it on a day-to-day basis,  it’s something you just can’t ignore, and I knew I had to do something about it.

When I started working as Executive Chef at DePaul University eight years ago, I got together with the students to brainstorm an answer to the very question I have always asked myself – how can we do a little better? This was where our food recovery and donation initiatives were born.

In the beginning, we partnered with a local church, making small donations, but today, we have a fully developed program. Where once we used to throw away forty, fifty or even sixty pre-packaged salads, sandwiches, yogurts or fresh fruit cups, now these items are collected every Wednesday and re-distributed to those who truly need it. Just because something doesn’t look pristine, doesn’t mean it’s not edible, and that someone couldn’t benefit from it.

Our current program also includes a student donation drive, developed in such a way that makes it so easy for students to donate. At DePaul, students obtain their meals by loading money on their ID cards and swiping it each time they want to purchase a meal. Often, they will have a few dollars leftover, and so we now give them the opportunity to donate some of the excess. The ease of doing so, and the generosity and willingness of the students, means that we have raised more than $10,000. In November of last year, we used this money to support and purchase items for the Food Pantry of the local church, which has been instrumental in providing families with protein items that they can’t afford – things like hot dogs and hamburgers, foods we so often take for granted. It’s only now that the Food Pantry is starting to run low on provisions, and so we will soon be undertaking another donation drive to ensure the Food Pantry is well stocked into next year.

We also use our own budgets to provide a hot breakfast once a quarter for those in need. With items like potatoes, eggs, bacon, sausages and danishes, it’s a small thing we can volunteer, but it’s a huge benefit for those who struggle to know when or where their next hot meal is going to come from.

So what was it that happened, way back eight years ago, that first time we delivered our food recovery donations to the church across the street? Chaos! I will never forget the confusion as our newly formed food recovery team pushed a cart full of food across the street. We were trying to figure out where to go, what door to enter, and what exactly we were meant to be doing! But in the end, it didn’t matter, because when we eventually did arrive, there were people waiting, and the look on their faces – the disbelief and amazement at the amount of food, as well as the deep and utter appreciation of the fact that it was for them – meant that all the chaos I had experienced was worth it.

James LeeResident District Manager at Chartwells HED

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