Monday, January 12, 2009

Chicago - Resource Center

Sustainability can be split into two fairly distinctive parts. One branch is based on a reduction or optimization of consumptive patterns while the other is centered around the capture and re-purpose of available resources. The Resource Center in Chicago is dedicated to the latter.

Cities are full of unused resources, some stand out while others often go unnoticed by the average urban resident. The most obvious waste in a city is space but most wastes are less obvious. For example, a single shipping depot in Chicago dumps 1000 tons of produce per day. The Resource Center concerns itself with any and all ways they can to re-purpose various waste streams. This post will focus on the organization and I'll throw up a post a bit later on its founder, Ken Dunn.

One of the main focuses of the organization is to connect people with nutritious foods. This is an obvious goal for the group since so much nutritious food is wasted everyday. Standard methods of diverting excess food from landfills to low-income communities are limited to non-perishable foods. The resulting poor nutrition provided by these foods only serves to exasperate deteriorating public health conditions in lower income communities.

The Resource Center works to solve this problem on two fronts; first, they help create economically viable farms on vacant lots and second, they collect perishable food and distribute it before it has a chance to rot. City Farm manages pay their farmers a living wage by selling much of their food to high-end restaurants downtown at a premium while maintaining affordable prices for neighborhood dwellers. The farms are incredibly fertile due to the enormous volume of compost they are able to collect.

The Resource Center collects two tons of perishable food per day from from caterers, shippers and grocery stores which they deliver to hungry mouths before it has a chance to spoil. A vast majority of this food is sourced from Whole Foods since they pull their perishables days before they expire.

The Resource Center does not limit its operations to nutrition. The organization finds innovative ways to deal with other potentially valuable wastes. Unwanted bicycles are delivered by the truck load to a bike shop run by at-risk youth. Proceeds from the bike shop sales fund educational resources for the children that work there. As the children age, they progress through an educational curriculum that encourages achievement. This program not only keeps bikes out of landfills, it helps develop the minds of young children, the most important and most often wasted resource that any place has.

Many retail outlets donate their unsellable goods to the Resource Center for sale at the Resource Center headquarters. They are searching for a larger space after losing their old warehouse to a university expansion.

The Resource Center once had a contract to pick up recyclables throughout the city but it was promptly canceled when Mayor Harold Washington unexpectedly died. They are now reduced to providing strategic drop-off points for recyclables. The revenue generated from sales of collected materials has been greatly reduced over the last several months due to the crashing market for many recyclables. The Resource Center is now funding some of its operations with donations.

Talking to Ken Dunn reminded me of a story about a friend's grandfather when he was very young. In the late 1910's, a Detroit businessman heard about a factory that had accidentally produced a thousand extra left shoes. For some reason, they had no way of producing matching right shoes and they planned to throw the extra left shoes away. The businessman who had caught wind of the mishap purchased the lot of shoes for a few pennies and then, with the aid of my friends grandfather, looked up every amputee--there were many due to the recent war--in town. They could offer some amputees a better deal on shoes than they could find at a store where they had to buy a pair and throw away their right shoe.

If you're living in Chicago and looking to help out the cause of urban sustainability, check out this organization. If you're in other cities, use the Resource Center as a model. Identify a resource, connect it too a need. It's a timeless way of doing things and one that we must all engage in if we're going to move towards a sustainable society.

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