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Heart of Chicago Comes Through for Eat-In

Posted: 08/27/09 01:50 PM ET

Like all great public spaces, Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago has set the stage over the years for as many causes as there are types of people. The great walls of city hall, the Federal building, and the Chicago Picasso have been the backdrop for a melting pot of events.

When I heard about the idea of an Eat-In, which is a group of people gathering in public in order to share a meal together and make a political statement I wanted to do it in Daley Plaza with our Slow Food Chapter.

Locally we are well known for great events that celebrate food through farmers, artisans, and ethnic cultures but we have never really gone down the path of organizing people around a reason for action.

The reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in Congress this fall and the Slow Food USA campaign (Time for Lunch) that is raising awareness for better food in school lunches and nutrition for our most vulnerable populations gave us ammunition to bring people together for an Eat-In.

Now, I've been to plenty of events put together by big fancy event companies and they are often impressive. As a small and completely volunteer-run organization, for us to do something of this scale requires not only time and money but also dedication from scores of people.

The Slow Food USA 'Time for Lunch' Campaign is proving that people all over the country are passionate and dedicated to making a difference in our food system through civic engagement and advocacy for change in Federal policy. There are over 250 Eat-Ins planned throughout the country on Labor Day in all 50 states. This has exceeded expectations all around.

I was the kind of student who always wanted to go first to get my presentations over with. That desire was working for me, when the only available date we could get for Daley Plaza this summer was on August 26th. So we started down the path of planning a simple yet impressive event, the first in a nationwide series.

Even the most-simple events are complicated.

Good ideas like buying seasonal fruit from local farmers to give away became a logistical nightmare after we decided to spread our love (i.e. purchasing power) and buy from four farmers at different farmers markets on different days. Unforeseen consequences of inviting partner organizations to come and set out literature were met with scrutiny about the limitations of commercial activity in the plaza. And after we found the perfect African drumming troupe to energize the crowd we got entangled in a web of insurance issues and ultimately could not hire them. Not to mention the rain plan that was impossible to resolve.

I shouldn't have been surprised to see the rain coming a week away.

Though a volunteer went with me, sitting in the plaza at 6am in the pouring rain watching the city wake up, I felt a little lonely. As tables, chairs, tents, and volunteers started to arrive the pace of the morning picked up. However the rain held steady and we had decisions to make about going indoors or sticking it out. Doppler was consulted, opinions were shared. Eventually we decided to take the risk.

By the time the stage, and sound were setup, a crowd with picnic baskets in hand started setting up their lunch on the tables. Our speakers were all there, and I looked out at the many faces of people who had committed to planning this event for months. My heart warmed. The rain stopped.

What we got was an Eat-In that was a little soggy, but had a lot of heart. This was confirmed for me when four lovely ladies dressed as ears of corn stepped on the plaza complete with their male butter, salt and pepper counterparts. Then again when the entire staff of the Angelic Organics Learning Center arrived wearing home made hats with local food messages, like "You can raise chickens in the city; ask me how". And even more so by the excellent speakers who spoke passionately about civic engagement and child nutrition.

We were fortunate to have the support of our state legislator and candidate 10th Congressional District, Julie Hamos. She has been a long time champion of the Food Farm and Jobs Act of IL, which recently instated a statewide coalition to work on creating incentives and opportunities for more growth and trade of local food, including school feeding programs. She spoke on the heels of Jim Braun, co-coordinator IL Local & Organic Food & Farms Task Force & Slow Food USA Board member who shared the power of civic engagement and how we have the ability to affect Federal policy.

The program covered grassroots perspectives from Cleo Record, a teenager and Growing Power Intern who shared how good food and eating healthy have become important in her life and Lucy Gomez Feliciano, a community organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association who has worked extensively with parents to teach healthy lifestyle skills including diet and fitness.

Josh Viertel, the President of Slow Food USA came from New York to share the ideas good, clean and fair idea behind Slow Food and how the Time for Lunch Campaign will leverage a national network of action around reform for the Child Nutrition Act.

Indeed it is a critical mass of people that will send a clear message to congress that child nutrition is important and change must happen. We are well on our way to defining the early 21st century by the food movement. The renewal of the Child Nutrition Act is an opportunity for us to affect the amount of money and the policies that will define how the most vulnerable populations have access to quality food. The Eat-In at Daley Plaza gave us the stage to share that message.

Using public spaces and community networks to educate and leverage these messages to policy makers is a tool that people all over the country can use. Pressure needs to come from both top-down and bottom-up if we are want to meet anywhere in the middle.

Our work in Chicago has just begun; hopefully we will have many more sunny days to share our message. But now we have built a policy platform, we have expanded our network, and we have proved that people will come out in the rain for something that they believe in.

As fate would have it, Mother Nature was on our team too; it started to pour again, about an hour after we finished.