Three of Chicago’s largest homeless shelters have banished bologna in favor of seared steak, za’atar chicken and perhaps, an extra helping of dignity.

The shelters, which traditionally serve a hot sit-down dinner and breakfast, often handed a peanut butter sandwich or other brown-bag lunch fare to visitors as they left each morning. But now, a partnership with Starbucks through Feeding America and the Greater Chicago Food Depository means that homeless Chicagoans get an upgrade to that critical daytime meal. The partnership potentially will expand to other U.S. cities as Starbucks’ lunch offerings grow.

Unsold sandwiches and salads from Starbucks’ Mercato lunch menu, currently only available in Chicago, are now directed to the three shelters nightly: Franciscan House in East Garfield Park, the shelter run by Olive Branch Mission in West Pullman and Pacific Garden Mission on the near West Side. Shelter managers say that the packaged meals, which range from a Cuban sandwich to green goddess avocado salads, have given those who stay at the shelters a much-requested break from the traditional PB&J they would leave with in the morning, reduced food waste, and freed up hours of sandwich-making traditionally handled by volunteers.

They’re also giving the temporary shelter residents something less tangible but even more important, shelter officials say.

“There’s something respectful about giving out good, quality food,” said Ed Jacob, executive director of Franciscan Outreach, which runs Franciscan House. “It’s a dignity thing. It’s not like putting bologna between two slices of bread.”

The shelters typically serve a dinner of pork chops, chicken or steak from established donation points like local restaurants or events brokered through the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Breakfast is often a hearty combination of pancakes, oatmeal, sausage and eggs, or something similar, depending on what food is delivered for that day. And then, volunteers or other full-time assistance program residents would prepare sandwiches to ease the 12-hour stretch that residents spend out of the shelters during the day.

But the sandwiches for hundreds of hungry people took hours to make, tying up volunteers, and some residents would take them and not eat them.

Olive Branch shelter manager Genice Bowles said that sandwich-prep duties that used to take three hours now take about one, and there are no longer any wasted meals.

“Sometimes people would just walk out and drop the peanut butter sandwiches on the street,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

It also takes care of those shelter guests who have dietary constraints, Franciscan House Program Director Cynthia Northington said.

Starbucks has had a formal program to donate unsold pastries and other nonperishable food items for more than six years, but the FoodShare program in which it donates prepared food like breakfast sandwiches and boxed meals started a year ago in San Diego. The program is now in 11 markets, and Chicago was the largest of those until the program began in New York earlier this month. Starbucks says it hopes to donate prepared food from every company-owned store by 2020.

The Mercato lunch menu donations were added in Chicago this spring as that line of packaged sandwiches and salads debuted in most of the coffee giant’s downtown stores. If it catches on, Starbucks plans to roll out the Mercato menu nationwide.

Other restaurant chains, from Panera to Au Bon Pain, regularly donate unsold food to the homeless through similar partnerships with Feeding America and local food depositories. But few give ready-to-eat sandwiches and salads. Pret a Manger donated 50,000 pounds of sandwiches, salads, wraps and baguettes from its 10 Chicago locations last year, according to Stephanie Perez, the chain’s marketing manager. Those items were donated to local Chicago missions, she said.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository said it collects about 1,900 pounds of food per night from Starbucks stores, roughly the equivalent of 1,600 meals. As the FoodShare program began in Chicago, the Greater Chicago Food Depository added overnight routes for the first time to collect unsold meals, food depository spokesman Jim Conwell said. Trucks collect from Starbucks in the evening and deliver to the shelters by morning.

The food depository expects to see about 693,000 pounds of food delivered from Starbucks stores this year.

“We’re ready to take the lessons learned so far, and feed more people,” Conwell said.

Franciscan Outreach’s Jacob said the ability to improve the quality of the food it offers to disadvantaged Chicagoans can have a positive ripple effect that most people may not realize.

“I think the security of knowing that they will have something healthy and good in their (lunch) bag makes a big difference,” he said. “There is so much stress in so many parts of their lives, so anything that that allows you to de-stress allows you to start to tackle some of the other things in life: health, housing, whatever it may be.”


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