Bret Harte and KFP

A Bret Harte Elementary School family with Principal Charlie Bright (top left) after receiving gift certificates from the Kenwood Food Project. 

Nearly a year after it began, the Kenwood Food Project has grown, expanding to help provide food from local restaurants and grocery stores to families at Bret Harte Elementary School and the Hyde Park Refugee Project.

The initiative started last March as a partnership with Kenwood Academy. Counselors there would identify students at risk of going hungry, and provide them with gift cards from the Kenwood Food Project to local restaurants like Pizza Capri and Cafe 53, as well as Hyde Park Produce and Food and Paper Supply Company. 

The gift cards are funded by donations to the Food Project. It's a way to help families in danger of going hungry, as well as local restaurants who may be struggling during the pandemic. Last June, the Food Project began working with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club (HPNC), which allowed the organization to write off donations as tax-deductible.

“The community responded so well that we had more gift certificates than Kenwood had a need for at that particular time,” said Linda Swift, who started the project. One day, after getting her haircut, she walked by Bret Harte and saw one of the school employees handing out free lunches. “I chatted with the lunch lady, and she already had 26 people. I was asking her, you know, maybe we could give (the gift cards) out.” 

Swift got in touch with Charlie Bright, the principal at Bret Harte. (“He has a perfect name for an elementary school principal,” she noted.) Bright agreed that it was a good idea, and began thinking of the best method to target families in need. 

“When she came there and just asked if I would be able to pass out the gift cards — without a doubt, I’d be able to do that,” he said. “We started with families that we hadn’t received forms for. When they turned in their forms and we found out they were receiving free and reduced lunch, we were able to give them a gift card at the same time they brought those forms.” 

Bright also gave gift cards to families who came to the school on Fridays to receive groceries as part of the Feeding South Shore program, as well as students who picked up Chromebooks and iPads. 

“Our school as a whole is over 70% free and reduced lunch,” said Bright. “It’s not everyone, but it’s a good number of families.” 

He said the gift cards had come in handy for one family after their refrigerator broke. “I was talking to the mother and she said, ‘You know, the timing was perfect. All our food had spoiled.’ This was a chance for her to go to the store and buy some more fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. 

“Right now with the pandemic, so many of our families — and so many families through the city — can use support. So the Kenwood Food Project has been a great way to tell (families) we’re thinking about them.” 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Swift said that the Food Project has raised over $11,000, almost all of it since it began operating under the auspices of the HPNC. Four people have become regular donors, including Clairan Ferrono.

“I think having the Neighborhood Club handle the financial side, the digital side, has made it a lot easier, so I decided to make a monthly contribution,” said Ferrono. “Those of us who can afford it need to help those who can’t — it’s that plain and simple.” 

Apart from working with local schools, Swift also reached out to the Hyde Park Refugee Project last fall when she had a surplus of gift cards. “A lot of the (refugees) work at restaurants and, you know, they are losing their jobs like everybody else,” she said. 

In total, Swift ended up giving 18 gift certificates to the 8 families at the Refugee Project. She said that she’ll look to help them out again the next time she finds herself with extras.  

Bright, for his part, reflected on the importance of projects like Swift’s, given the need that many of his families find themselves in because of the pandemic. 

“I was talking to a dad yesterday, and he said while he knows others are worse off than he is, he’s struggling, paying bills late, paying rent late, but he’s paying them,” Bright said. “But, you know, any kind of help you can get. And our families aren’t asking for it, but they appreciate the offers when they’re made to them. 

“A lot of these families would normally be pretty quiet, but I think because of programs like the Kenwood Food Project it’s been a way for principals like myself and other principals in Hyde Park to connect with families.”

Visit to donate to the Kenwood Food Project. 


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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