“In the unforgiving year just past, we might all have lost our path if not for the helpers and the heroes. Across 2020, Wednesday Journal sought out and told the stories of so many people doing good, taking risks, watching out during the COVID-19 pandemic. When, in November, we began to focus on our 36th annual Villager of the Year, we turned to readers for their nominations and we found a whole new group of helpers and heroes that we’d never known.” -Dan Haley, publisher Wednesday Journal.

You can review the entire collection of 2020’s Villagers of the Year on Wednesday Journal’s website, but four honorees have made a difference in food related areas. Learn more about their important accomplishments below.

Imperfect but ambitious response to hunger

Running a food pantry during a pandemic has been daunting and logistically challenging says Michele Zurakowski, executive director of Beyond Hunger, 848 Lake St. in Oak Park. The key to successfully navigating COVID-19, however, has been firmly rooted in Zurakowski’s expectation of imperfection.

“We knew we would make mistakes,” said Zurakowski. “I led with the notion of trying new things. We knew we wouldn’t be perfect, but we would all debrief, make modifications, and try again.”

Under Zurakowski’s leadership in 2020 Beyond Hunger shifted its in-person shopping experience to a drive-thru/walk-up model designed to mitigate health risks while still getting healthy food into the hands of people who needed it most.

Additionally, Beyond Hunger tripled the size of its home delivery program dedicated to providing food to people who could not otherwise get to the pantry. Creative thinking in the face of increasing need led to a collaboration with Oak Park Township. The expansion of Beyond Hunger’s delivery program was hampered by driving needs, but the township allowed the pantry to utilize its vehicles and drivers to deliver food to those in need.

“Our staff and volunteers were willing to do whatever it took to make a difference in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” said Zurakowski. “I see this honor as a reflection of the incredible effort my team has put forth.”

Though Beyond Hunger anticipates an avalanche of need in 2021, Zurakowski remains confident the community will continue to rally around people facing food insecurity.

Cookbook author and youth philanthropist

Current Oak Park and River Forest High School freshman and author of “Quarantine Cookbook,” Cat Nickles, turned her comic-inspired recipe quintet into a fundraising force that garnered national attention in 2020.

When the pandemic foiled the young food-lover’s plans to open a pop-up restaurant at the Children’s School as part of her eighth-grade capstone project, Nickles pivoted and created a cookbook to sell as a fundraiser for Beyond Hunger. She did not set a price for her book and hoped a “pay-what-you-can” model would help her raise $1,000.

 Before long Nickles’ book had generated more than $5,000 and earned an invitation to appear as a “Helping Hero” on a socially-distant broadcast of Live with Kelly and Ryan.

While on the show, the young writer and illustrator discussed her recipe for 8-second s’mores and detailed her fundraising success. At the end of the segment co-host Ryan Seacrest announced Live with Kelly and Ryan and Safeguard were making a $5,000 donation to Beyond Hunger.

“I thought this would just be a small project,” said Nickles. “But I have learned that small action can make a big difference.”

To date Nickles’ cookbook sales have raised just shy of $19,000 for the Oak Park food pantry and she is committed to making it to $20,000 in 2021. She is expanding her recipe collection to increase donation potential and is considering the creation of a second book. In the meantime, Nickles has taken on an internship with Mama Kat’s Sweets to hone her skills and has been offering virtual cooking classes to raise additional funds for Beyond Hunger.

Farmers Market plowed new ground in COVID year

Once farmers markets were deemed essential in Illinois, Colleen McNichols, Oak Park Farmers Market manager, went to work with a team of village officials including Cameron Davis, Mindy Agnew, Cara Pavlicek, and Mike Charley to create a COVID compliant market.

“In a year when nourishment was never so needed, it was my pleasure to help this team effort to support market vendors, some of whom are fifth generation farmers,” said McNichols. “We never could have pulled this off without the existing village infrastructure.”

McNichols and her team of staff, volunteers, commissioners, and farmers, relocated the market over three continuous blocks to allow for proper social distancing. The market hosted 27 vendors and a single point of entrance at Lake and Scoville. Over 23 weeks, the market welcomed 60,000 in-person shoppers.

More than 50 volunteers made the market a success in its 45th season. Commissioners Rachel Hahs and Robin Schirmer donated 300 hours of their time to execute the first ever virtual market designed to reach individuals most at risk for COVID-19 complications.

The virtual market sold over $127,723 in local products with farmers and volunteers filling 2,300 orders for nearly 500 shoppers. Additionally, under McNichol’s leadership the modified Oak Park Farmers Market completed more than $14,000 in LINK sales, donated 920 pounds of perishable food to Beyond Hunger, and composted 690 pounds of market waste.

“Having finished this challenging season intact, it is clear that villagers will never allow this market to fail,” said McNichols.

Creator of Takeout 25 Oak Park

When Ravi Parakkat, current candidate for Oak Park village trustee, crunched the numbers to help local Oak Park restaurants survive the COVID winter on the horizon he was not sure his simple formula would resonate with residents. The Takeout 25 initiative, launched in mid-November, however, inspired thousands of residents to do their part to help local eateries. 

The movement compels residents to spend $25 per week on carryout fare in Oak Park and the surrounding communities. Despite a few growing pains and contentious posts, the Takeout 25 Oak Park Facebook page remains largely positive and solution oriented. The page boasts more than 6,000 members who share photos of takeout fare, ask for dinner recommendations, and interact with restaurant owners. 

Restaurant owners have made it clear the Takeout 25 Oak Park initiative is making a difference — some establishments have been able to rehire furloughed employees while others have created special offers and discounts specifically geared toward the Takeout 25 community.

Though Parakkat’s focus remains local, the Takeout 25 model is now being replicated on a national scale with similar efforts popping up from California to New York.  

“This is totally unexpected, and I thank the WJ for this honor,” said Parakkat, “I accept this on behalf of the Takeout 25 core team and would like to dedicate this to our community which quickly rallied to support our local restaurants while inspiring other communities across America to do the same.”

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