An 18-year-old Johanns Williams used to sell mis-labeled laundry detergent out of his car. As a teenager, he’d seen his once bustling and vibrant Harvey community transition to a place grappling with rising crime, unemployment, and poverty following the closure of the local steel mills and commercial businesses in the late 1970s and 1980s. Even the beloved Dixie Square Mall was no more.

His soap enterprise out of the trunk of his car was his way of supporting struggling families. “That’s how I started wanting to do something to lift the community,” Johanns said.

Fast forward to 2010. Johanns was a successful business professional with a career in franchise operations for the hotel industry. Yet, his hometown continued to face systemic inequities—including access to food. In between work trips while visiting family, he witnessed them unpacking fresh produce and non-perishable food—from a local pantry.

Soon after learning of the ongoing challenges of food insecurity impacting those so close to him, Johanns decided he needed to do more. He had recently joined United Way of Metro Chicago’s South-Southwest Regional Board. He viewed the partnership with United Way as the perfect way to take action and get food to families in need—not only in his hometown of Harvey, but in the greater south suburban region. Their first food drive started with “an eight-foot table and about seven volunteers,” Johanns said. “We collected maybe 2,700 pounds of food.”

“We did it the next year and the next year, and it started to catch on and grow,” he said. “From an eight-foot table to the Tinley Park Convention Center. Now we have over 150 volunteers, guest speakers, awards, a luncheon—the whole bit.”

April Food Day has, indeed, transformed. The annual food collection event and awards luncheon brings in more than 100,000 pounds of food distributed to 10 local food pantries in the Southland. This year, the awards luncheon, emceed by CBS2 Chicago reporter Mugo Odigwe, will feature a keynote from Emanuel “Chris” Welch, Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, and honor individuals and organizations making a lasting impact in their community: Mia Cross, Mi-Jack Products, and Thornton Township.

April Food Day truly brings the community together for a cause that is close to Johanns’ heart, with volunteers and donors from all walks of life, from corporate business professionals to high school students—and even Johanns’ own family. His children travel home from out of state to share in this family tradition of giving.

“We are so close to so many individuals who struggle, and by no fault of their own, for something as simple as food. We can do something,” he said. “When you take on your passions and share with your family, it takes on a deeper meaning. This event helps me teach my kids the importance of living your values and feeding people—feeding people with more than just food.”

“I struggle to not have tears in my eyes,” Johanns continued. “The greatest conduit we have is food. For me, food is love. If we continue to keep food in front of people, good things will come out of it.”

Join Johanns in sharing love through food this April Food Day! On April 13, donate food, volunteer to sort donations, or make a financial contribution. Learn more and join United Way as we support food security and build stronger, more equitable communities in the Southland.

Banner photo and student volunteer photo by Terence Crayton Photography