“That was his goal. … My father was always interested in feeding hungry people,” said Bob Strube, Jr., who’s now retired from the family business, Strube Celery & Vegetable, founded in 1913.
Each of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s six founders – Ann Connor, Thomas O’Connell, Rev. Phil Marquard, Gertrude Snodgrass, Ed Sunshine and Strube – brought unique skills and experiences to the mission.
Their collective dream was to find a more systemic way of feeding people facing hunger in the Chicago area. Over a series of meetings – and inspired by the nation’s first food bank in Phoenix – they hammered out the details and sharpened the vision for a nonprofit that would better connect food companies to the food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the city.
From one of Strube’s produce stalls in the once bustling South Water Market, the Food Depository began distributing food in 1979 with only two full-time employees, one part-time secretary and no guarantee of success.
“We didn’t have a lot of resources, but we had many willing hands. It was the right idea at the right time in the right city.”
Ann Connor, one of the Food Depository’s six founders
The Food Depository’s first federal grant was for $47,500, which was awarded in March 1979 by the city of Chicago.
A well-respected man on the South Water Street Market with a booming voice, Strube sought to raise the profile of the company in order to have a larger social impact.
“He used to tell me, ‘If you get into a row boat and try to go across Lake Michigan, it’s not too easy to do. But if you go with your neighbors and friends, it makes it a lot easier to row the boat,’” Strube, Jr. said.
Strube, who died in 2010, was also part of what Chandler described as “an ecumenical movement” among faith leaders of different denominations to unite in a larger-scale effort to end hunger. Strube, active in his Lutheran church, was also chairman of a committee on hunger for the Church Federation of Greater Chicago.
Father Phil Marquard – a Franciscan priest described in a 1988 Chicago Tribune story as a “lifelong champion of the poor, hungry and homeless” – connected several of the founders who were part of the Third Order of the St. Francis, a Catholic order of laypeople. It was Marquard and Tom O’Connell, according to the Tribune story, who attended a conference in Minnesota where they learned about the first food bank in Phoenix, Arizona, which was founded by John van Hengel.
From there, Marquard arranged a meeting with van Hengel and three of the other founders: Strube, Gertrude Snodgrass, who was also a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, and Ed Sunshine, a former Jesuit priest who had left the priesthood and married Connor in 1977.
“That gave us an idea of what could be done,” Sunshine recalled of the meeting with van Hengel. “It showed us we had a path forward.”
Both Sunshine and Connor had worked in South America, feeding impoverished people in Peru and Chile – a revelatory experience for both of them. Upon returning to Chicago, they turned their focus to hunger in in the city. Sunshine researched and wrote a book called “The Hunger Handbook,” which listed all of the pantries in Chicago, while Connor pursued a master’s degree in social work.
Sunshine wrote the proposal for the Food Depository’s first federal grant of $47,500, which was awarded in March 1979 by the City of Chicago.
“We didn’t have a lot of resources, but we had many willing hands. People stepped into the breach to move it forward,” Connor said. “It was the right idea at the right time in the right city.”
Each of the founders brought unique talents to the table. O’Connell was an insurance agent who came to understand food insecurity by talking with people in their homes and learning of their daily challenges. Snodgrass was an African-American woman who was instrumental in engaging with black churches in Chicago. Many of the pantries and soup kitchens were accustomed to operating independently, not as part of a network of agencies.
“Gertrude was a force to be reckoned with,” Connor said. “She was a very bright woman who didn’t take no for an answer.”
Sunshine and Connor, now 80 and 81 years old, live in Miami Shores, Florida.
They still volunteer at their local food pantry.
“I’m really proud of what they’ve been able to do,” Sunshine said of the Food Depository. “I’m very happy that it’s helping all those people.”
To read more about the Food Depository’s history, visit chicagosfoodbank.org/40years
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