Tony Williams (above) makes a meal delivery to BEDS Plus in LaGrange earlier this year. According to Williams, United Pride and Produce delivered about 300 meals to BEDS Plus, which provides services and shelter for homeless individuals, this summer. (Photo provided)

When Brookfield resident Tony Williams led a peaceful march and call to action in early June following the national outcry over the death of George Floyd, little did he know that for the rest of the summer, he would be busy helping make lasting change for area children in need.

On June 6, Williams raised his fist, dribbled a basketball, led a march and spoke to a crowd of nearly 200 people in Kiwanis Park — a self-started #shutupanddribble initiative in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to share his story in support of marginalized Black and minority lives.

Williams’ Facebook hashtag – derived from a Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s complaint about NBA star LeBron James expressing political opinions — was his way of claiming the phrase in order to promote change.

When the Facebook algorithm noticed the support Williams’ hashtag was getting on the platform, it sent him a suggestion of starting a fundraiser.

That suggestion led to Williams launching United Pride and Produce, an organization with a mission of providing low-income children with healthy food and giving them the skills prepare quality, healthy meals.

“The whole idea is to empower these kids,” Williams said. “The goal of United Pride and Produce was to unite people to be proud of themselves over learning all things produce.”

Williams’ inspiration for the initiative was two-fold.

The project was originally meant to be just a summer meal initiative, sparked by his fiancée, second-grade teacher Jenna Jungels, and her hope to sponsor one of her students from Berwyn’s Piper Elementary School, who was in need of meals while school was closed.

Williams, who as a child was on a lunch ticket program in school, knows first-hand what it’s like to struggle with food insecurity. He wanted to do more.

“I know that I wasn’t eating healthy in the summertime,” he said.

Through that first student, word spread to others, and Williams and Jungels were able to connect with eight other Berwyn students. The result was sharing 100 produce boxes with the students from the middle of June to the end of August.

Initially, the produce boxes came from one of Williams’ friends who owns a produce distribution company. But, at $20 a box, it became too difficult for the friend to trim the price. 

So, Williams eventually landed a partnership with Veggie Rx, a cooperative program with the Maywood Park District which aims to reduce barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption. The group is co-led by Brookfield resident Mary D’Anza Mora, a registered dietitian nutritionist through Loyola.

Mora heard about Williams’ endeavor through social media, and was able to help Williams get discounted-rate or fully donated boxes through Veggie Rx.

Most produce boxes included tomatoes, onions, potatoes, apples, cucumbers and greens. And, to ensure students and their families were educated on these healthy foods, United Pride and Produce hosted six Zoom meetings featuring interactive cooking classes.

“Each time we got a produce box, we were coordinating with our chef from Veggie Rx what we were going to highlight from each box and effective ways to teach basics on cooking,” he said.

And, with the outpouring of support from 300 Facebook followers on the United Pride and Produce page, the Brookfield Connections neighborhood Facebook page, and word-of-mouth, donations also allowed for United Pride and Produce to assist with community partners, including BEDS Plus of La Grange and Veggie Rx, to deliver 800 summer lunches to the homeless and people in need across Chicago’s West Side and western suburbs.

To Williams, who works by day as a public adjuster with the Illinois Department of Insurance, extending a helping hand to those in need is part of his ethos.

“I advocate for the public when they file insurance losses to ensure insurance companies serve the public properly,” he said. “It’s so uplifting to help others.”

As for what’s next for United Pride and Produce, Williams is open to suggestions, although he knows he wants to help Brookfielders get more connected in working with Veggie Rx.

“What I’ve come to find, especially in Brookfield, is that most of my [financial and partnership] resources have come from Brookfield,” Williams said. “But, how can I help Brookfield? If you spent the day with me [in June], the village of Brookfield sees that there’s a need to do something. Really, my message is that in Brookfield, it’s more difficult to find that network of need, so we have to do that difficult work.”

For more information on United Pride and Produce or to offer suggestions on how the group can help locals in need, visit their Facebook page at Facebook.com/unitedprideandproduce.