The grand prize for Veggie Bingo is a beautiful basket of vegetables. Credit: Shelly Herman

In 2009 Martha Bayne was bartending at the Hideout and had been working with the community meal and hunger-relief fundraiser Soup & Bread over the winter. Bayne, Sheila Sachs, and Ben Helphand began brainstorming ways to keep the momentum of Soup & Bread going well into the summer. “I suggested salad and bread,” says Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace, which is a nonprofit that preserves and supports gardens in the city. “Martha said that was a terrible idea and suggested veggie bingo!” Since 2009—with one year as an exception—Veggie Bingo has been kicking off in the middle of June and running through Labor Day.

NeighborSpace makes sure community spaces have insurance, water, education, tool-lending access, fundraising support, project planning, and more. Since the 90s, NeighborSpace has been a steward to these community gardens and currently works with 109 gardens across 33 wards. Proceeds from Veggie Bingo go toward garden spaces and farms in NeighborSpace’s network.

Combining veggies with bingo seemed obvious to the trio at the time, and still seems as relevant as ever. “It seemed like people could use a goofy distraction,” says Bayne. This year, with the pandemic, Veggie Bingo decided to start up early, in mid-April. Since then, they’ve had successful nights and as many as 150 players on Zoom at one time.

Interested in playing? Head to NeighborSpace’s website and you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to play. Most importantly, “you need to register for Zoom Veggie Bingo, and show up on a Wednesday night through the link,” explains Robin Cline, NeigbhorSpace’s assistant director. “There are multiple options for choosing a bingo card, which the website explains in detail. You can also draw your own card, which some folks have done, and use beans, pennies, blueberries, anything from your junk drawer as bingo markers.”

When folks win at bingo, they get a prize (winners get a selection of pickles, jams, hot sauce, and, for the grand prize, a basket of vegetables), and the money they put towards participating (donations of $5 to $10, or however much you want to give, are suggested) helps out a community garden or food pantry that is involved. This year, Veggie Bingo has selected gardens and farms that prioritize hyperlocal food like Star Farm Chicago, Bronzeville Neighborhood Farm, and 71st and Crandon Organic Garden. Grand prize vegetables are donated and delivered by Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks.

Helphand says, “We never imagined it’d last a decade and form such a meaningful community. It’s become a time and place where families and friends can come together, for fun, eating together, and to support urban growing. Over the years the traditions have evolved, from hot dog breaks to new games like the H/O for Hideout [a bingo creating a letter H in the upper left corner and a letter O in the lower right], to everyone chanting ‘prove it, prove it’ when someone claims bingo. And going online the tradition continues. One new twist is a ‘line dance’ every time the caller announces a line game. The spirit of bingo lives on.”

The virtual bingo community is strong.Credit: courtesy NeighborSpace

Every week a different “celebrity” leads the virtual bingo. For this last month of games, callers included Chicago Reader alum Lisa Martain Hoffer, Windy City Harvest’s Urban Youth program director Eliza Fournier, stage performers Mr. & Mrs. Wednesday Night, and musician Stan Wood (onYou)—the last game will feature long-ago Hideout bartender and spouse of the Hideout’s co-owner, Anastasia Davies Hinchsliff, and her family.

When I asked about any tech issues that have arisen during the new normal of livestreaming, Cline says at first they weren’t sure if people would be able to “feel the coziness that Veggie Bingo offered,” and that, yes, there have been some strange awkward moments with folks trying to figure out the technology, people learning to play, and audio feedback.

“We did a trial run with friends and family in April, just to see how tricky it was going to be, and while it was clunky, we got off that first practice call, and said, ‘This actually might work, this is actually going to be fun,’” Cline says. “In fact, as we have gone along this summer, there have been some surprising moments of community connectedness on the Zoom that, in some ways, we couldn’t have had in real-life bingo.”

When players are muted during the game, Cline says that “there’s this whole screen of quiet earnest faces playing bingos in their homes, their basements, their porches. Everybody’s smiling, laughing, but silently. Pets and children will walk across the screen. Sometimes the bingo caller will have people ‘show and tell’ their pets. Other players will try to guess the names of the pet in the chat.” It becomes more of a personal experience despite players being unable to connect physically and in person.

Outside of bingo, NeighborSpace has been wanting to do a social distance line dance in one of the community gardens with garden tools. One garden leader, Evan Hofmall from Drake Community Gardens, is a dancer and choreographer and has led Zoom line dances during the game. “Since players come back every week, lots of folks know this dance now, and there’s something about seeing everyone sit in their chair, doing a silent dance together, waving their arms around, that is so charming and moving,” says Cline. “Yes, we’ve had our awkward moments, but most of them have been pretty meaningful.”

So far, Veggie Bingo has raised $8,000 and was so successful that they decided to extend the season until September. If you’re interested in participating, games run every Wednesday through 9/2 from 7 to 8 PM. You can also donate to Veggie Bingo’s GoFundMe to help out a local outdoor community space.   v