A photo of Sharon Wentz smiling at The Hatchery.

News & Features

Friday, October 18, 2019

Food psychology isn’t all about fad diets and eating disorders. In fact, that’s a very small part of it. It’s really about the relationship between humans and food, which can be fascinating.

Just ask Northeastern Illinois University senior Sharon Wentz. She’ll tell you all about it.

Wentz, a Psychology major and Anthropology minor, recently completed her capstone project—or senior thesis—on the creation of The Hatchery, a $30 million food and beverage incubator that opened earlier this year in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. The area is widely considered to be a food desert, meaning an area of the city where it is difficult to find or afford fresh foods.

Wentz was enrolled in a food psychology course as she completed her project.

“The class perfectly coincided with my capstone,” said Wentz. “We discussed the ethics of food, how it’s sourced, understanding food deserts, and the relationships between foods and illnesses.”

The Hatchery is a collaborative effort between the business incubator Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago (ICNC) and Accion, a small loan company. It provides a space for entrepreneurs in the food industry to rent professional, up-to-code kitchens to create their products and get them to markets.

“The need for The Hatchery started because Chicago is known for food,” Wentz said. “Chicago also has a lot of entrepreneurs.”

Founded in 1967, ICNC found in recent years that more entrepreneurs were using its space for food and beverage businesses. To address this, the organization wanted to create a spot where entrepreneurs could lease kitchen space by the hour, week or month without having to invest large amounts of money in businesses that may not be successful. That notion became the driving idea behind The Hatchery.

Steve DeBretto, the executive director of ICNC, was interested in documenting the creation of the organization. Howard Males, chairman of the Economic Development Advisory Committee of Cook County and founder and CEO of Research Pros, Inc., and College of Business and Management Dean Michael Bedell thought it would be a great opportunity for a Northeastern student.

“There was a discussion with Steve, Mike and I about how Northeastern could work with The Hatchery before it opens,” Males said. “One of the ideas that was floated during the conversation was, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have somebody watch while we hatch?’”

Psychology Department Chair Amanda Dykema-Engblade and Professor Ruth (Breckie) Church volunteered to help find a motivated student who could complete an archival record of The Hatchery’s building process from the perspective of people who were heavily involved in its creation. They reached out to several Northeastern departments and asked students to submit brief statements of interest in order to find the right candidate.

Wentz was selected for several reasons, including the fact that she studied nutrition and has an interest in the relationship between how nutrition, biology, anthropology and psychology can contribute to a person being healthy and well-balanced.

“Sharon is a conscientious, responsible, hard-working, kind and a detail-oriented student,” Dykema-Engblade said. “In addition to being an outstanding student, Sharon is really a compassionate and thoughtful individual.”

Wentz is also an entrepreneur, having co-created a yoga teacher training program. She started college many years ago, left school for a while to build a career, and is now balancing work and academics as she completes her bachelor’s degree.

“Sharon worked in the world and came back to school,” Church said. “There is something about that prior experience that makes students so good to send out into the world to represent Northeastern and use their own prior experience along with what they’ve learned here to do research projects like this.”

Nine interviews with stakeholders in The Hatchery, including Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. and members of the Garfield Park Community Council are in Wentz’s final report. The completed report will be housed in The Hatchery’s archive, and Dykema-Engblade has encouraged Wentz to submit her research to a scholarly journal for possible publication.

“I was very drawn to the interviewing aspect,” said Wentz, who presented her research at the 2018-2019 Student Research and Creative Activities Symposium. “Learning about The Hatchery was a perfect blend of my interests in psychology and anthropology.”

In addition to renting kitchen spaces, The Hatchery hosts various low-cost workshops and networking events for industry professionals. This summer, it’s also hosting Rick Bayless’ Impact Culinary Training program to open doors to the culinary industry for young adults. The program aligns with The Hatchery’s mission to create 900 jobs by 2023 and help lower the unemployment rate in Chicago’s most underserved communities.

“The folks at The Hatchery were very conscious of not invading space because of gentrification,” Wentz said. “Their whole mission is to help disadvantaged neighborhoods and people who haven’t been given a fair shot—former convicts, etc.—to cultivate prosperity in the area. One in three jobs in ICNC and The Hatchery are offered to neighborhood residents on the South and West sides to ensure residents can be employed.”

Through her experiences, Wentz has truly become invested in The Hatchery and is eager to see what it can accomplish.

“I am honored to have been a part of this,” Wentz said. “Food impacts brain health and IQ, and not having access to nutritious food can be incredibly detrimental to a person’s body. The Hatchery is giving people opportunities in Chicago that have a dream—a recipe, something they know will be loved by many—and allowing them to make their dream come true.”

Wentz hopes another Northeastern student might be able to continue the project where she leaves off. She thinks the work at The Hatchery is worthy of continued study because it’s trying to meet entrepreneurs where they are and helping them to advance, regardless of any previous or current struggles to succeed.

“Nobody deserves to be left behind,” said Wentz, who’s on track to graduate this fall. “People deserve second chances and opportunities to grow and find out what they’re capable of.”