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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

For A Full Year, This South Side Mutual Aid Group Has Fed 100+ Families In Need While Supporting Hyde Park Restaurants

Since the end of last year, nearly 100 families at Kenwood Academy and Bret Harte Elementary have received gift cards of about $50 to local restaurants and grocers.

2020 Kenwood Academy graduates pose with gift cards donated through the Kenwood Food Project after their drive-through graduation ceremony last June.
Linda Swift
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HYDE PARK — After more than a year of giving local families a free taste of Hyde Park’s locally owned restaurants and grocers, the Kenwood Food Project doesn’t plan to stop raising funds and offering gift cards to kids.

The project raises money to buy gift cards from local restaurants and grocery stores to support those businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. The gift cards are then given to local families in need so they can eat well for free.

The project has been brought under the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club’s wings and expanded to Bret Harte Elementary in the 13 months since Hyde Park resident Linda Swift started fundraising to buy gift cards.

Donors have funded gift cards of about $50 for nearly 100 families in recent months. Pizza CapriMedici on 57th, Cafe 53, Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen and B’Gab’s Goodies are the participating Hyde Park restaurants, alongside grocer Hyde Park Produce and food service distributor Food and Paper Supply in Greater Grand Crossing.

Sixty-three Bret Harte families and 30 Kenwood Academy families have received gift cards of $45–$55 since Dec. 1, Swift said.

“It’s really great that people are continuing to support the Kenwood Food Project, and really great that new people are signing on,” Swift said.

“So many families” at Bret Harte have been in need of food assistance through the pandemic, Principal Charlie Bright said. Bright estimates he’s personally handed out about 90 percent of the gift cards donated to his school, as it gives him a reason to check in with families one-on-one.

At the beginning of the school year, Bright would give cards to families who qualified for free lunches. Since then, he’s given cards to families who came to the school for weekly food distributions, or those who personally came to staffers and “let us know they were in any kind of situation where they were struggling.”

Bright tries to offer gift cards to new families at each distribution, so as many families as possible get the chance to take a break from cooking for a night, Bright said.

“Our families now … they’re working, they still have to take care of the household and clean the house and maintain it,” he said. “For one night, they can go and get dinner on the Kenwood Food Project and the businesses who have also contributed. It makes a difference.”

The project has been sustained by recurring givers and generous one-time donors, and it recently received a $500 grant from the University of Chicago Service League to buy 10 more gift cards.

Vreni Naess, who lived in Hyde Park for 63 years and was involved with cultural projects throughout the neighborhood, gave $100 to the project last summer, Swift said. When Naess died last fall, a friend of hers donated in her memory.

In another case, a six-time donor who doesn’t live in Hyde Park has given a total of $500.

“That’s somebody who doesn’t even live in the community, but is really impressed by the way we’re getting food to families in need, supporting the restaurant workers and also allowing the families to have choices,” Swift said. “They know it’s food their family is going to enjoy, and it gives the parent a night off from cooking. It’s nice to have a little of that pressure eased any time — especially in the pandemic.”

After high schoolers returned to in-person classes this week, “we may see a jump in need,” Swift said.

“People say, ‘I’m glad you’re still doing this’ — and I must admit, I thought I would be out of business in six months,” Swift said. “But, of course, the pandemic has held on longer than that. We hope our restaurants are not so threatened in another six months, but the families needing food is probably not going to go away.”

To make a tax-deductible donation to the Kenwood Food Project, click here.

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