By Briana Garrett
Take a two-minute walk around the corner from the Wilson Red Line station to find Inspiration Corp., a non-profit organization waging war on food insecurity and hunger in Chicago as it has since 1989.
In Cook Country, one in seven people are food insecure, meaning that they are vulnerable to hunger and their access to fresh, affordable food is limited. Inspiration Corp. finds this reality unacceptable and fights it with a variety of programs.
“It’s stupid! Why is anyone food insecure? There’s more than enough resources to go around,” said Inspiration Corp. Chief Development Officer Evan Johnson. “It’s a question of will, not capacity.”
Inspiration Corp. hosts a restaurant-styled meals program at Inspiration Café, 4554 N. Broadway, and serves approximately 300 people who come for meals offered five days a week. Inspiration Café serves a variety of healthy meals to the food insecure, with participants spanning the spectrum of poverty, from the working poor to people who are jobless or homeless.
“It’s a refuge, a warm place to be, to feel respected, chat with peers and staff, and feel home,” said Meals Program Coordinator Cameron Calia.
Calia, 23, a recent graduate of Loyola University, where she earned a degree in social work, credits her academic background and passion for food for galvanizing her to pursue work in food equity. Calia manages a program of 50 participants, 5 waiters, 3 cooks, and a handful of volunteers per meal.
“I have the highest regard for our participants and I am inspired by their resilience. I feel lucky to interact with all the folks who come into the café.”
On a typical morning, participants will stop to chat with staff and other regulars.
Bob Turner, a participant who also volunteers, wakes up at 4 a.m. everyday for the 5:30 breakfast shift and comes to Inspiration Cafe for a hot breakfast and a space to read.
“I’m so grateful to the people here that have helped me so I pay it forward. If someone does me good, I’ll do good to them,” he said.
Other participants simultaneously criticize and sing the praises of Inspiration Corp.
“Things have changed a lot. There’s a missing understanding of the deeper needs. Inspiration is going through a rebuilding process,” said Renee Martin, a self-described “semi-participant.”
Johnson explained that the Illinois budget stalemate of 2015-2017 took a toll on the Inspiration Corp.’s resources, forcing them to dissolve their soft skills training program, which focused on job prep, trauma sensitivity and psychology. The organization had to also close their South Side kitchen location.
However, the organization has seen growth in their impact in other sectors of their programs. Inspiration Corp.’s Food Service Training program is a free 12-week program that offers certification in food handling and sanitation management.
Hundreds of participants express interest. About 100 people enroll during the application period that occurs once every month. Half of the enrolled class graduate and go off to work for small and large companies in the culinary field.
“We have really strong connections in the restaurant industry,” stated Johnson.
The organization has also connected over 300 people with employment and housing through a supportive housing program.
“In the past I got a lot of help, and they’ve helped me get to where I am today. I’m fading out from Inspiration Café because that’s the way it should be,” said Martin, as she was on the way to her interview for an apartment.
Inspiration Corp. staff members say that ending food insecurity is about more than giving meals but helping people transition to independence and live better, healthier lives.
Johnson affirmed, “My job is to make people give a damn so that more people can live their lives to the fullest extent. Poverty creates problems for everybody. We don’t need a revolution. We need sanity.”
If you or someone you know would like to volunteer with Inspiration Corporation, visit their site at inspirationcorp.org.