The Surplus Project wins ‘Big Idea’ contest

Beth Klein, Jennifer Greiner and Michele Zurakowski, who edged five other finalists are overjoyed to win the Big Idea take home $50,000 that will support their efforts to alleviate hunger in the OPRF community. Photo Credit:

On Thursday evening on the stage at Wire on 6815 Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn, the first-ever Big Idea Finalist Pitch Party announced that the winning team was the leaders of The Surplus Project.  Team leaders Beth Klein, Jennifer Grenier and Michele Zurakowski, who edged five other finalists, took home a $50,000 grant that will support their idea to alleviate hunger in the OPRF community.

According to the event’s press release, when Kristin Carlson Vogen, the foundation’s president and CEO, announced the winner, the audience of nearly 200 burst into thunderous applause. Klein and Grenier shed tears of joy and rushed onto the stage to join Zurakowski.

With their allotted time on stage, each finalist team had to present a compelling pitch about their idea to the judges panel as well as participate in a question-and-answer segment. After hearing from all six finalists for about 10 minutes each, the 25 judges went backstage to deliberate for 35 minutes. The judges for the ‘Big Idea’ part of Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy (ELP), a giving group created under the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Zurakowski, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, shared data about the local hunger.  This data included the staggering statistic that one in five Oak Park families with children are “food insecure,” as well as an estimated 40 percent of food grown and produced in the United States going to waste.

The other two team leaders, Klein, the OPRF food pantry bookkeeper and Grenier, a nurse at Rush Oak Park Hospital, displayed a shopping cart that held a typical day’s output of dozens of meal containers distributed to local agencies who serve people who are hungry.

With the $50,000 grant, the women plan to hire a program coordinator who would oversee the expansion of the program beyond surplus cafeteria food from Rush Oak Park Hospital to six other additional locations in the community. Klein and Grenier anticipate that with their project, there will be 25,200 “fewer empty stomachs” in the coming year and in the long term.

“It will enable us to keep this going at Rush Oak Park Hospital, but we want to expand it to MacNeal Hospital, West Suburban Hospital, Dominican University and Oak Park and River Forest High School,” Greiner told  “We have all these connections already, but now we need [to pay] someone to coordinate all that.”

“I think this could be a model for the nation,” Grenier said. “So it’s really exciting to have this seed money to stabilize and expand what we have been able to do so far.”

In September, Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy (ELP) unveiled to the public the Big Idea Campaign which represented a new opportunity to reach out to the surrounding communities and work through nonprofit organizations in Oak Park and River Forest.

There was a total of 39 ideas submitted and six finalists chosen. In addition to The Surplus Project, they were:

  • Arbor West Senior Neighbors– seeks to create a network of neighbor volunteer support of multiple generations for older adults in our community so they can “age in place.”
  • Knockout Pickles – a farm-to-jar artisanal pickle enterprise of Warriors of Opportunity Knocks, who are young people with intellectual/developmental disabilities.
  • Living Landscapes Project – aims to turn residents’ lawns into more productive, biodiverse space, such as organic native and/or edible gardens.
  • Recycling and Reuse Park– would be a consolidation point to divert material from landfills that could be recycled or reused.
  • Time Exchange Project – you don’t necessarily need to have money to purchase goods and services, but can convert your own time into purchasing power.

As the judges deliberated, finalists mingled with supporters and shared their appreciation for the contest and the outreach opportunity.

“We just really feel valued by the community,” said Stephanie Walquist, part of the Living Landscapes Project. “It makes me so proud of my community. This was a great idea—it’s fun, but it’s serious at the same time.”

The roots of The Surplus Project can also be traced to the OPRF Community Foundation. A year ago, through the foundation’s Community Leadership Program, Grenier and Klein were part of a team that launched The Surplus Project at Rush.


The Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation exists to help all community members determine how they want to make a difference in the world.

Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy (ELP) brings together 40 business leaders, each contributing $2,500 toward a fund of $100,000, being used in part to fund a Big Idea that could transform Oak Park and River Forest communities for generations to come. For more information about the Big Idea, please visit the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation website.


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