Soup and bread food bank fundraiser at Exit Strategy Brewing on Tuesday June 20, 2023 | Todd Bannor

For Katherine Valleau, a former teacher and Forest Park School District 91 board member, and current co-owner of Exit Strategy Brewing, helping to reduce hunger and food insecurity is deeply personal.

“I feel very strongly about food stuff,” she said. “I taught here in town, and, like, seeing a 10-year-old coming in hungry, it would just wreck you.”

Social responsibility, Valleau said, was always an important part of Exit Strategy’s ethos. And when she was asked if she would be interested in hosting Soup and Bread fundraisers, which raise money for local food pantries by offering all-you-can-eat, home-cooked soups, Valleau embraced it with gusto. 

The fundraisers kicked off in March, and they have been held every third Tuesday of the month from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. So far, they’ve raised funds for Oak Park’s Beyond Hunger food pantry, 848 Lake St., Forest Park’s Mohr Community Center food pantry, 7640 Jackson Blvd., Elmwood Park Community Food Pantry, 2334 N. 75th Ave., and North Lawndale’s Stone Temple Baptist Church, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd. The July 18 event will raise money for the Westchester Food Pantry, 1938 S. Mannheim Rd. 

The August event will raise money for the Food Aid Festival, which will take place on Aug. 27 at Oak Park’s Scoville Park, Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue. Beyond that, Valleau said Soup and Bread Forest Park will continue to look for opportunities to raise money for pantries on the West Side and west suburbs. After all, food insecurity exists everywhere, and opportunities to help abound.

Soup and Bread launched in Chicago in 2009 amid the Great Recession. Chefs, caterers, and home cooks were invited to donate soups and bread that could be shared in a communal meal. For a donation, participants could eat as much as they wanted, and the proceeds went to Chicago food pantries. 

The original Soup and Bread events were held at Chicago’s Hideout bar, and they have since expanded to other parts of Illinois and across the country. Forest Park had its first Soup and Bread fundraiser in 2013. 

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic, which worsened food insecurity, also put a damper on the events – there was simply no way to hold them amid lockdowns, masking and social distancing.

Last winter, with the pandemic receding, a group of west suburbanites started talking about bringing it back. Valleau said that Brad Knaub, co-owner of Carnivore Oak Park, 1042 Pleasant St., approached her to see if she would be interested in hosting the fundraisers.

“And I said – 100%, absolutely,” she recalled. 

Beyond Hunger was a natural first choice, given its history in the area. Valleau was the one who suggested the Forest Park food pantry for April.

“We started with Beyond Hunger, for our first month. We raised $1,300,” she said. “It just went into a giant wad of cash for Beyond Hunger, and they were able to use it for hundreds and hundreds of meals. Next month, we did the Forest Park food pantry. We raised another $1,300. They were able to buy all the shelf stable products.”

Valleau said each fundraiser has an average of  “8 to 14 soup makers set up a buffet of all kinds of soups.” They get support and donations from several Oak Park businesses – the aforementioned Carnivore, the Daly Bagel, 130 Chicago Ave., Karl’s Craft Zoup and Zesty Catering. Valleau said attendance fluctuates, and it’s not unusual to have repeat participants.

“I think our highest count has been 90 to 100 people,” she said. “We always clean out the soup. We don’t have leftover soup, it’s always gone. It’s wonderful, we want that.”

In addition to the monthly fundraisers, Soup and Bread Forest Park did a fundraiser on May 16 for asylum-seekers who have been arriving in Chicago from Central and South American countries. This was a supply drive since many of the refugees came with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“That whole shuffleboard table,” Valleau gestured to her left, “it was full of donations for the refugees coming into the police stations, coming into the area. There were toiletries and diapers and feminine products. Someone brought a suitcase and the inside of it was full of socks and underwear. If you’re in an unsafe situation, you’re not sticking around to pack. And it took multiple trips, 2 to 3… it ended up going to different churches after police stations guided us to take it [there].”

She said the organizers will sit down and figure out what to fundraise for next. Valleau would like to keep hosting the fundraisers at least through the end of the year, and hopefully beyond. After all, she doesn’t expect the need to go away any time soon. 

“The idea that oh, this is only a big city problem, or in this pocket of the city — absolutely not,” Valleau said. “Food insecurity exists all around us, anywhere. You’re not going to find a community that doesn’t have a need. Every community has a need. And we cannot wear blinders to that. We cannot be so naive as to think that we live in X zip code and therefore we cannot have that ‘problem.”