If They Only Had a Brain 

Jeff Grabowski found a way to help feed the poor. Then the city's Connie Buscemi got wind of it.

By Ben Joravsky

With winter coming, soup kitchens and food pantries all over Chicago will be looking for donations. But Jeff Grabowski, a 28-year-old salesman for a plastics company who lives in Wicker Park, won't be donating anymore, not after what the city did to him last year. "I know it's hard to believe," he says, "but the city fined me $200 for trying to collect unwanted food from farmers' markets and give it to the poor. There are some coldhearted people working in City Hall."

Grabowski got the idea of collecting food for the poor from farms and gardens from his father, Larry, a Vietnam vet who received a Purple Heart and has a large vegetable garden at his home in LaGrange. "Gardening's my passion," says Larry, who worked for Peoples Gas until he retired a few years ago.

Over the years Larry had given a lot of his vegetables to the poor. "On my way to work I'd bring bags of food downtown and share it with homeless people I'd see on the street," he says. "I don't believe food should be wasted--particularly when there's so much need. I told Jeff, there's got to be a way to get food to people who need it."

Over the summer of 2001 Jeff created a Web site that listed local soup kitchens and shelters that needed food, and he and his father hooked up with Plant a Row for the Hungry, a national organization that encourages gardeners to donate some of their produce to the hungry. On September 2 the Grabowskis got a write-up in the Sun-Times headlined "Gardeners donate produce to help feed the hungry."

"By the end of last September we were getting all sorts of hits on our Web site from people wanting to help," says Jeff. "Everyone agreed it was a great idea."

Emboldened by the praise for their efforts, the Grabowskis decided to gather food that hadn't sold at the city's farmers' markets. "I saw all this unsold produce at the market in Wicker Park," says Jeff. "I asked a farmer what he did with it. He said, 'Nothing. Just dump it in the compost pile back home.' I said, 'Would you be willing to donate it to me so I can give it to the homeless?' He said, 'That would be great, take it off my hands.'"

Jeff returned to the market on September 30. "I filled up my car with three or four big bags of food and took them to Saint Pius, a church in Pilsen," he says. "I talked to someone in the back and just said, 'Hey, I have some food.' It was nothing formal. They needed food, and I had some to give."

Over the next few weeks he made two other food pickups at the Wicker Park market. "I dropped these at the Pacific Garden Mission on South State Street," he says. "I was really getting excited about the potential of these farmers' markets. I asked a farmer, 'Who's your contact with the city?' And he said, 'Talk to Margo with the Department of Consumer Services.'"

So Jeff called Margo. "She couldn't have been more pleasant or helpful. She said, 'Oh, my boss, assistant commissioner Connie Buscemi, would love to hear about what you're doing. Why don't you write everything in a fax, so she knows?' I thought, 'This is awesome. The city actually wants to help--they actually want to get involved.'"

On October 22 he faxed a two-page letter to Buscemi. He was, he began, "a food coordinator with Plant a Row for the Hungry-Chicago" and had already made three pickups and drop-offs. He said that some farmers had told him that the "Chicago Food Depository used to stop by at the end of each market, load all the unsold goods on a truck, and bring it back to their warehouse. [But] the health department stopped them one day, claiming that the food was too dirty." The time was right to restart that effort, he wrote. "In my estimate a well-organized pickup schedule could generate 5,000 pounds per week of donated perishable fruits and vegetables. This is food that would otherwise be thrown away or composted. I would really like to work with you in any way possible to utilize this source of food to feed the hungry, and I'm interested in hearing any ideas that you have."

Grabowski says that not long after he faxed the letter, Buscemi called him. "She said, 'I read your fax, but it will never work. Farmers don't have time to donate their food. Too much organization is required.' It was a short conversation. I hung up and thought, 'Well, she's totally not interested.'"

To his surprise, however, Buscemi called back a few hours later. "This time she was a little edgier," he says. "She said she had read over my fax and wanted to make a correction. She said I was wrong about the health department having got on the Food Depository's case. She said the only reason they stopped that program was because they couldn't find any drivers. I said, 'I'm sorry. I'll never make that mistake again.' I thought, 'Great, I messed that up. I'll never hear from her again.'"

But Buscemi called back the very next morning. "This time she was angry--I mean, completely livid," says Jeff. "She had visited our Web site and read that blurb where we said we were teaming up with the farmers' markets. She said, 'You have absolutely no right to say you're working with the farmers' market.' She said, 'We didn't give you permission to team up with our farmers.' She said, 'I want that removed from your Web site immediately.' I said, 'I'll have it off by tomorrow.' She said, 'That's not good enough.' I said, 'There's nothing else I can do. I'm at work. The hard drive's at home. I'll do it as soon as I get home.'"

Grabowski says Buscemi called again a little while later. "This time she demanded that I show up in City Hall in two days, on Thursday, with proof that what I'm doing is humanitarian and that I'm not doing it for profit. She said she wanted proof that I had actually dropped off this food. I said, 'But I don't have proof. I didn't bother getting receipts. I just dropped off the food.' She said, 'I don't care. Get the proof and bring it to my office on Thursday.' I said, 'I can't make it on Thursday. I work.' She said something like, 'If you don't show up in my office on Thursday you will sorely regret it.' In other words, get your ass in here or there will be hell to pay."

There are good reasons for the city to have policies that regulate who can pick up food donations and deliver them to charitable organizations. Plenty of people have tried to scam donors and recipients in the past, and no doubt they sounded legitimate.

The next day Grabowski called Saint Pius and talked to Pastor Charles Dahm, who wrote a letter on church stationery: "I wish to certify that Jeff Grabowski delivered approximately 12 bags of fresh produce, equivalent to about eight bushel baskets, on Sunday, September 30, 2001." Armed with this letter, as well as a copy of the Sun-Times story, Jeff and his father went to City Hall that Thursday, October 25, to meet with Buscemi.

"I figured the letter from Pastor Dahm and the article would do the trick," says Jeff. "I thought any reasonable person would realize that our intentions were good. I honestly thought--as naive as it may now sound--that Buscemi would see that I was legitimate and say something like, 'How can we work together?' Remember, this was soon after September 11. The mood in the country was one of charity." But when they arrived, he says, "Buscemi and two of her aides were sitting at this long table with their arms crossed. They didn't smile. They made no attempt to put us at ease."

Larry says Buscemi and her aides "essentially accused Jeff of taking the vegetables for private use. I thought, 'This is absurd.' Think about it. What can Jeff do with old vegetables? Is he going to sell them on a black market? Come on. What else can he do but give them to the poor? They wanted to know why we hadn't registered as a not-for-profit with the state. I said, 'Look, we're not that sophisticated. We made some mistakes. We're just a couple of volunteers.' I have to tell you, I've never encountered such hostility."

Jeff says Buscemi closed the meeting by giving him another ultimatum. "She told me to find adequate proof of having made the deliveries to Pacific Garden," he says. "She said, 'Fax us your defense by November 1.' She said, 'If you don't come up with adequate proof of those deliveries we'll have to move forward.'"

He called Pacific Garden and located a volunteer, Kenneth Smith, who recalled that someone, though not necessarily Grabowski, had made a food drop-off on October 7. Smith wrote a to-whom-it-may-concern letter on Jeff's behalf, and Jeff faxed it to Buscemi.

Then on November 7, says Jeff, "Some peon from City Hall shows up where I work. This guy hands me three tickets and says I've been charged with three violations of the city code. He says I have to appear at an administrative hearing on December 26--the day after Christmas, no less." According to the tickets, Jeff was being charged with two counts of deceptive practices and one count of failing "to register with city and obtain a limited business license."

"By now, it's worse than bizarre--it's like a cruel joke," says Jeff. "I'm like, who is this guy? What's he doing here? Isn't there some better way for the city to spend its money than to send this guy to harass me? I mean, is this nightmare ever going to end? I tell him, 'This is absurd.' And he says I'm lucky, ''cause we were thinking of charging you with six violations.'"

The Grabowskis hired a lawyer and on the day after Christmas showed up in court. Buscemi and a city lawyer were waiting. "They offered me a deal," says Jeff. "They said they'd drop the two counts of deceptive practice if I pled guilty to operating without a license and accepted a $200 fine."

The Grabowskis debated the deal. "I had mixed feelings about taking the guilty plea," says Larry. "I didn't want to admit to doing anything wrong. But my wife and I were going out of town on vacation soon, and part of me just wanted to get this over. So we took the deal. Jeff pled guilty and paid his fine. It still makes me sick thinking about it."

Buscemi says she's had no second thoughts about how the city handled the matter. "Mr. Grabowski's motive may have been good, but the way he went about it was all wrong," she says. "He used the name of a program that he did not have authorization to use. They were not registered as a charity with the state. And they could not provide a complete and accurate assessment regarding what he had done with the food he had gathered."

But what could he have possibly done with the food, other than drop it off at a shelter?

"That's not our responsibility to prove that he did something with the food," she responds. "He went to a farmers' market claiming to be an agent of a charity. He should be able to document that. We do not allow people to claim they are working with us unless we know for certain that they are a respected and reputable charity. That's not fair to the growers who are donating, and it's not fair to the people who should be benefiting. We take great pride in the name Chicago Farmers Market."

Larry says that he and his son immediately stopped trying to distribute food to the hungry. "The net effect is that a lot of food was wasted," he says. "I'm not saying the city shouldn't regulate its programs. But anyone could see Jeff was just trying to do some good. Doesn't anyone in City Hall have any common sense?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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