Kennedy works to bring food to Chicago neighborhoods in need

For most of his adult life, Chris Kennedy called Chicago’s famed Merchandise Mart home.

Today, the son of the late Robert Kennedy has stepped away from the constant emails and reports, which were his life while president one of the largest office buildings in the world, to discuss world issues with college students and bring fresh foods to Chicago’s food deserts.

His office, still in the Merchandise Mart, is now accessible through a labyrinth that includes a fire door and service hallways.  For years, it served as a storage area.  It’s now a remodeled, open office teeming with interns and a small staff for his latest venture, a non-profit called Top Box.

“These are chicken strips,” says Kennedy as he reaches into a large freezer chest along the wall of the office.

The chicken strips only scratches the surface for Top Box, which looks to sell fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods at about half the retail costs to customers in areas of Chicago, known as food deserts.

“It’s where there’s not a lot of traditional grocery stores but there are a lot of fast food and convenience stores,” explains Sheila Kennedy, Chris’ wife and partner at Top Box.

Both of them are on-scene for the monthly deliveries at local churches and community centers, along with their children and family friends.

Since starting in May 2012, Top Box has sold 110,000 pounds of food, more than 50,000 of which was fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We’re really proud of that,” Sheila says with a smile.

The business model is simple, says Chris, “We buy food very inexpensively from people who supply restaurants for the most part and then we resell it for about half the price that a regular grocery store would be selling the food for.”

In addition to cash and credit cards, Top Box also accepts Illinois’ LINK card for payment.  It allows those on public assistance the chance to take part in the program.

It marks a change in pace for Chris Kennedy, who came to Chicago, and to work at the Merchandise Mart in his 20s, eventually managing the property.

Now, nearly 50, he traded his life at the top for life at the top of a change he’s thought about for years.

“I think what we’re doing at Top Box is something that’s consistent with my parents, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s dedication to helping others.

That lesson is also showing up in the classroom where he spent this past semester teaching an honors course in Social Justice at Dominican University in suburban River Forest, challenging young minds to think beyond themselves.

“There are times in most people’s lives  when you have to do what you have to do,” says Kennedy, “And I got to a point where I had a little more flexibility and this is what I always wanted to do. “

His hope is to inspire others through service, while still keeping a foot in business.  He’s one of the driving forces behind the development of Wolf Point along the Chicago River downtown.

“I think that is the trick to gaining happiness,” he says with a smile. “I think this is a way for me to channel that energy in a really positive way.”

For more information on Top Box visit http://www.topboxfoods.com/

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