Yolanda Hoskins of Increase the Harvest greets each person who walks in to pick up their box lunch with kind words and a smile as she notes down their names. The modest basement office of Increase the Harvest is across the street from Oscar DePriest Elementary School and the program is available from 3-6 pm, Monday through Friday, with different box lunches on each day.

Schoolchildren from Chicago's Austin neighborhood

School children enjoying their boxed lunches

A veteran union and community organizer, Yolanda Hoskins told of how she had canvassed the neighborhood,”Putting up signs. Passing literature out and knocking on doors.” Hoskins believes that by feeding the children after school, they will do better on their homework when they get home. By the end of the first week, the program was so successful that the box lunches were gone  before the 6 pm closing time. Hoskins is now calculating how many more box lunches to order.Increase the Harvest is a new community organization which grew out of Zerlina Smith’s’ 2014 aldermanic campaign in Chicago’s 29th Ward. Running as an independent, Smith did not make it to the runoff election, but vowed to continue her advocacy on behalf of the Austin community. A parent leader in the education justice movement, Smith wants Increase the Harvest to roll out new programs based on community discussions and resources available.

Yolanda Hoskins, Desmon Yancy and Zerlina Smith of Increase the Harvest

Yolanda Hoskins, Desmon Yancy and Zerlina Smith of Increase the Harvest

Austin parent Nichole Brown stopped in for the food program, but also said she wanted to join a women’s group who could discuss common issues in the community and find ways to seek help. Like many Austin residents she interested in job training and job placement.Michelle Young wants Austin residents to come in to discuss their problems and get help finding resources to deal with their issues. Young said,”We can’t promise them anything, but we do promise we will fight for them.”

Michelle Young

Michelle Young of Increase the Harvest

For the activists of Increase the Harvest, the food program and the other programs they are planning will help build human relationships and strengthen a community that has been battered by decades of racism and bad economics.The Chicago Department of Health has compiled a hardship index where Chicago neighborhoods are ranked by statistics such as poverty levels, per capita income, and unemployment rates. Austin ranks among those communities with the most difficult hardships. The mostly white affluent neighborhoods like Near North and Lincoln Park have the least difficult hardships. Race and class matter in Chicago. They matter a lot.

Austin neighborhood boy takes a turn on the Increase the Harvest exercise equipment

But Austin does not define itself by those hardships. It also has local businesses, block clubs, churches, schools and community organizations who are determined not to let hardships prevent them from improving the community. Increase the Harvest is now among these neighborhood institutions and the mood around the office is one of optimism and hope.Along with their non-profit community service wing, Increase the Harvest also is organizing for social change. On the table next to the office entrance is a stack of leaflets announcing a planned mass march through downtown Chicago for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to join a union.

The idea is to combine direct social service with social activism.

Black Lives matter

One block north of the Increase the Harvest office

Not surprisingly, informal discussions about politics often take place at Increase the Harvest. People there are generally suspicious of the racist corporate driven politics that come from City Hall in Chicago and the State House in Springfield. Voter turnout is low in Austin and many residents have basically given up on the political process, feeling that it is stacked against them.However there is also a fledgling independent political movement emerging within the community, one that steers clear of the subservience to Big Money and its army of corrupted politicians. This movement is often the subject of discussion among Increase the Harvest activists.

Yolanda Hoskins feels that most politicians do not fairly represent their communities and are actually actually harming them by taking from neighborhoods instead of helping the people who live there. She is especially concerned about the lack of meaningful programs for young people.

“That’s why I’m giving back to the community. I want to help our community. To build it up. Not to bring it down. That’s why I got involved with Increase the Harvest. This is my passion.”

Central and Lake in Chicago's Austin neighborhood

Central and Lake in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood