By Abdon Pallasch
Sun-Times Political Writer
CHICAGO--President-elect Barack Obama and his family spent an hour handing out chickens, potatoes, bread and other Thanksgiving food to poor families on Chicago's South Side Wednesday morning after Obama introduced his latest economic advisors. Then he shook hands with Catholic grade school students ecstatic to see him.
Many of the poor and homeless -- some of whom come for food every Wednesday -- screamed in disbelief as they entered the parking lot of St. Columbanus church at 71st and Calumet Drive and realized the reason they had been wanded by the U.S. Secret Service was because Obama, his wife and daughters, were standing there ready to pass out the food usually handed out by volunteers.
"At Thanksgiving, it's important for us to remember people in need," Obama said. "They told me the number of people coming here is up 33 percent from last year."
About 600 families got food, said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. That's up from 270 families last year, said the Rev. Matt Eyerman.
This is the fourth year in a row Obama has handed out food before Thanksgiving. Last year, he did it in New Hampshire.
"We started seeing increases as early as last year January," Maehr said. "In April, we started seeing double-digit increases.
"Happy Thanksgiving -- hey, don't forget your chicken," Obama said after hugging one woman who screamed when she saw him. Declining to give an autograph, he said, "If I sign autographs, I can't pass out my chickens."
Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 , stood beside their father also handing out food in the 43-degree weather beneath the elaborate 99-year-old stained glass windows of St. Columbanus church. Obama wore a leather jacket while Michelle and the girls were bundled in winter coats and hats.
Obama said it was important to bring his daughters because, "I want them to know how fortunate they are and that they have to give back," Obama said.
As he finished handing out the chickens, Obama turned and looked up at the windows of St. Columbanus School where the pre-K through 8th graders were furiously waving and screaming from their second- and third-floor windows, their screams barely audible through the closed windows.
"Hey Michelle, look," he pointed as she waved back.
"We've got to go in there and say 'hi' to those kids," he told his wife, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service, which frowns on spontaneity.
The Secret Service asked school officials to bring the school's 300 students down to the assembly hall.
"Secret Service for Barack Obama said we'd better gather the children quickly. It was like a fire drill. They said, 'can they make it down in five minutes?'" Eyerman said. "For Barack Obama, they could make it down in five minutes."
The enthusiasm was off the charts as Obama entered the room and attempted to shake hands with the children as young as five and pre-Kindergarten. Some grabbed onto his leather jacket sleeves and would not let go, trying to climb up in his arms.
"I just wanted to come by and wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving," Obama said. "What I'm thankful for is my family, my friends, my community."
He asked the kids who would be having turkey and macaroni and cheese. Prompted by Michelle, he asked, "Who's getting good grades?"
"Listen to your teachers," Obama said. "One of you might end up being president."
"Who likes math?" Obama asked the students. His daughter Malia did not raise her hand until her mom gave her a playful slap and she raised her hand.
Obama took two questions from the kids. One asked what it was like to be president.
"I'm not the president yet ... once I'm president I'll let you know what its like," he said.
A girl asked him what it was like to have so many people following him.
Obama said he appreciated the members of the Secret Service and the press who he said were missing spending time with their families so they could accompany him.
He and Michelle jokingly asked members of the Secret Service to identify themselves by raising their hands. They did not.