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Elaine Doremus & Allaina Roberson | Photo: Jim Newberry | January 3, 2013
The Kennedys take their passion for helping the hungry to the streets.
Chris and Sheila Kennedy recently launched Top Box Foods (topboxfoods.org), a nonprofit that buys high-quality meats and vegetables at wholesale prices, bundles the food into boxes and distributes them through participating host sites throughout Chicagoland neighborhoods. We chat with the power duo about the project...
Chris, you have been a passionate advocate for the hungry for many years. Why Top Box Foods and why now? I moved to Illinois 26 years ago with the idea of trying to start a social nonprofit business to fight hunger. It might seem like an odd ambition, but my oldest brother Joe Kennedy had started one of the first social businesses in the United States called Citizens Energy Corporation in 1979. There is no single solution to solve the challenges of hunger, but Top Box has a lot of elements that allow us to go into ‘food desert’ and ‘food swamp’ neighborhoods that don’t have a lot of resources and provide high-quality food at up to half the price of leading national grocery retailers.
Sheila, what role do you play at Top Box? I do everything and anything. In the beginning, it was just myself and another person and Chris. I originally set up the intern program. Now, I’m setting up cooking demonstrations in churches, organizing the food photography for the website and everything in between.
Chris, do people from the North Shore support your efforts? If you look at all the resources from the North Shore and everything that made it happen, it’s really incredible. Tom Parkinson, who co-founded Peapod, is a friend of ours and lives in Winnetka. He helped us figure out a solution for fresh fruits and vegetables. Mark Falanga, president of MMPI, is from Wilmette, and he donated our office space in the Merchandise Mart. Geof Vance of McDermott Will & Emery is from Winnetka and provided all of the legal work. Bob Abrams, who lives in Highland Park and started Claire’s Boutique, came out on delivery day and helped improve our cash management process. Martha Cray from Winnetka is a spiritual leader and the inspiration behind the organization. In Evanston, Caryn Friedman and her husband Bill Kolen, a lawyer at Legal Assistance Foundation, worked on volunteer and operational issues and help on delivery days along with their son. Even our kids’ former teachers are out with us delivering food.
Sheila, are your friends and family involved? It’s really risky to be friends with us or be related because we ask our friends to join in and help out. My mother always quoted Luke 12:48: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ We gave a lot of people responsibility quickly, and they were able to make it up as they went along.
Chris, where do you see Top Box Foods going? We’re currently starting to work with groups in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Washington and Baltimore to expand the business model. There are a lot of people excited about our organization, and it only takes a few people to get it done. We’ve got a lot of the operations, administration and the supply chain all figured out. Now we can franchise it—not to make money, but to expand it.