Project22Nine rescues prepared meals to give to those in need

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Leonard Buonincontro, founder of Project22Nine, delivers freshly cooked food to the Holy Family Soup Kitchen at Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan on Feb. 3, 2021. Project22Nine repurposes high-quality, healthy, fresh pre-cooked meals — the overproduction of subscription meal programs — to soup kitchens and pantries. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

While the pandemic has caused many non-profits to rethink the way they conduct their outreach, it has also created new ministerial opportunities for others.

That is the case for Project22Nine, a Chicago-area non-profit that provides support to other non-profits in the areas of hospitality and agriculture.

Its founder, retired chef Leonard Buonincontro, received a call from a friend, a chef for a subscription food company that is growing quickly. The friend told Buonincontro that the company frequently had excess prepared food each week.

“I went down and he had large 32-gallon garbage cans and they were just throwing food in there. They were producing food so fast and they couldn’t anticipate their orders,” Buonincontro said. “It’s a curse of the online business. But it’s not a curse for everybody else. We have so many blessings.”

His friend asked him if Project22Nine could figure out a way to get the food to local soup kitchens and food pantries that have seen an increase in demand during the pandemic. Buonincontro, who is a member of the Knights of Columbus and St. Walter Parish in Roselle, came up with the idea of using FDA-approved, food-safe five-gallon buckets to distribute the food.

That began the organization’s Bucket Brigade. Now, the Bucket Brigade delivers over 25,000 rescued organic, gluten free meals — all prepared by professional chefs — each week to food pantries and soup kitchens around Chicago, including those at St. Blase Parish in Summit, St. Columbanus Parish, the Missionaries of Charity in Pilsen, Franciscan Outreach and the Holy Family Soup Kitchen at Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan.

The number of meals Project22Nine delivers is increasing almost weekly.

The Bucket Brigade works in rotation. Volunteers drop off buckets at the food companies, where the containers are sanitized and food-safe liners are inserted. When the buckets are full, volunteers pick them up and deliver them the same day to soup kitchens and pantries. They also pick up the buckets dropped off the previous week and deliver them back to the companies, where the process starts over.

The buckets contain foods like sirloin steak in chimichurri sauce, honey chicken and ropa veja, and they are divided into starches, proteins and vegetables.

Project22Nine is raising funds to purchase a refrigerated truck for the summer months since the food must be kept at 34 degrees.

Since the beginning, people have “come out of the woodwork” to help, Buonincontro said.

He originally purchased 20 buckets. Then a donor reached out and provided 100 buckets.

Then, during a delivery to the Missionaries of Charity in Pilsen, one of the sisters told him how much they loved the buckets and used them for other purposes. She told him she was going to pray for more buckets.

“I walked out, got into my truck and got a phone call. It was a guy who makes race car fuel,” Buonincontro said.

Since people weren’t buying racing fuel in the pandemic, the man’s company turned to producing hand sanitizer. He said he just fulfilled a contract with the federal government and had 7,000 leftover buckets he would donate. All Buonincontro had to do was arrange for delivery.

“I walked back in and told the nuns, ‘You’ve got to stop praying because I don’t have a place to put these buckets,’” he said.

Someone donated a warehouse to store some of the buckets, and Project22Nine distributed others to non-profits such as the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Humboldt Park, which filled them with Christmas care packages and delivered them to neighbors and clients who visit their weekly food pantry.

“It’s just been like this ever since,” Buonincontro said. “We needed a truck, and somebody donated a truck.”

Buonincontro is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and spent 55 years as a chef or consultant for restaurants and companies all over Chicago, including Fritzel’s at State and Lake streets.

Project22Nine, which takes its name from Proverbs 22:9: “The generous will be blessed, for they share their food with the poor,” is an extension of his life’s work.

“We all don’t have to have wealth in the form of money. It wouldn’t have done anything for this. This is all just practical knowledge,” he said. “All of my experiences from life are here.”

It’s appreciated by the communities they are serving, said Father Tim O’Malley, pastor of Most Blessed Trinity in Waukegan, whose Holy Family Soup Kitchen benefits from weekly deliveries from Project22Nine.

“The food is just delicious,” O’Malley said. “I’m very pleased with the food that they prepare.”

The soup kitchen also extended an invitation to other groups in the community to use the food.

“We’re buying less food and we’re having the opportunity to present food that’s been chef-prepared in a beautiful way,” he said. 

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  • hunger
  • covid-19

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