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December 1, 2016

Sitting on a curb outside an Einstein Bros. Bagels shop in Libertyville that closed for the day, Stevenson High School junior Amrit Johar wondered where he would go next to unload a batch of unused bagels.

He had just filled the trunk of his parents' car with leftover bagels from the shop, an exercise he has been doing since earlier this summer when he decided to collect unused bagels from area stores and donate them to various food pantries that serve families in need.

Organizers with a few of those pantries have commended Johar for his volunteerism but noted how space on their shelves tighten during the holiday season, when donations usually increase and numerous food drives are put together.

Johar still is collecting the same amount of bagels that he collected during the summer. The dilemma now is finding more places to take them, he said.

"The hardest part is finding people who actually want the bagels because (the pantries) have so much food," Johar said. "These bagels can feed a family. But once fall came, it was a sudden transition."

The concept seemed simple to Johar when he started the project in the summer.

After going through training at the MA Center Chicago in west suburban Elburn on ways to serve others, Johar started noticing how many bagels and other goods bakeries throw away at the end of the day.

Johar, a Vernon Hills resident, decided he would ride around in his parent' car, collect leftover bagels and deliver them directly to area food pantries for free.

But he quickly learned the process was much more complicated than that since bakeries simply don't hand over unused goods to strangers. Before starting the project, he learned about online donation registries, where businesses and charities can verify information about volunteers, and reached out to local bakeries directly.

By August, Johar started delivering the unused bagels after making connections with several bakeries in Libertyville, Lincolnshire, Palatine and a few other locations in Lake County.

He since has averaged about three to four trips to bakeries each week. He spends time at his house repacking the bagels into clear plastic bags and tying each bag by hand.

After approaching St. Francis de Sales Catholic Parish in Lake Zurich about his donation idea, parishioners decided to raise funds and purchase 1,000 bags for Johar to use, said Kathleen Murray, the food pantry director at St. Francis de Sales.

They were even more appreciative of his effort, she said. After Johar showed he was committed to the idea, the Lake Zurich pantry made sure to reserve space for his bagels, Murray said.

Regarding his recent dilemma, pantries typically see heightened demand in the winter months, she said.

"Everybody wants to give at Christmas," Murray said. "Nobody does it in the summer, and we get everything now."

Nancy Urice, who coordinates the food supply for the Vernon Township Food Pantry near Buffalo Grove, said they were relieved to see a teenager eager and willing to help.

Organizers usually have room to take on extra goods throughout most of the year to serve the 300 people who come into the pantry each month, she said.

But space has diminished recently for Johar's donated bagels.

"We're getting more and more donations," Urice said. "We do see a major increase at the end of the year."

But Johar said he plans to continue his donation effort beyond the holiday season.

He said he is willing to travel to food pantries throughout Lake County, even as far north as Waukegan, where he recently found a food pantry in need of goods.

"I'm kind of scared for January," he said. "I'm going to have a bigger demand for these bagels."

Even in the busy winter months, the Vernon Township Food Pantry appreciates the months-long donation effort by Johar, Urice said. She usually sees teenagers burn out after only a few trips to the local pantry.

"People do get excited about some particular activity, then life gets in the way and they don't follow up," she said. "It's really exciting when a child sticks with it like he is."

Ronnie Wachter | Contact Reporter, Pioneer Press
[email protected]

Twitter @RonnieAtPioneer

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

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