Food Inequality And Race In Chicago

How one African-American organization is shaking up the organic food status quo.
Publish date:
April 30, 2014
The Good Men Project, farming

Working on and spreading the word about a church-owned organic farm which sells fresh fruit and vegetables to the working class, largely African American community on Chicago’s South Side is a matter of leveling social inequality. It’s justice.

It’s the basic freedom and right to have good food.

That’s one of the reasons I work as head of congregational outreach for the nonprofit Faith in Place, a religious conservation and earth stewardship organization. The mission was furthered some months ago, when I was awarded a 2013/2014 fellowship by Audubon’s Toyota Together Green program to reach out to churches and congregations both about nutrition and conservation, as well as sustainable eating and food production. I teach and provide congregations with cooking classes for healthy eating and other services, because it’s been said — and I find it to be true — that religious institutions are the Town Halls of the African-American community.

Part of my work is with the Vernon Park Church of God, helping to recruit volunteers for the church-owned Mother Carr’s Organic Farm (named in memory of a congregant) as well as working, planting and harvesting in the fields. We all joke that Vernon Park Church of God’s organic farm is probably not only the first CSA (community supported agriculture) in the area, but the first CSA or ‘Congregation Supported Agriculture’.

I’ve always been city person, with a taste for fashionable clothing and high heels. When I first started volunteering at the farm, planting and harvesting I wore the only pair of overalls I owned. They were black velvet!

Since switching a few years ago to a healthy diet, I have lost about 70 pounds. It’s all part of our core mission:

"To help educate and change eating, shopping, cooking and food production customs and lifestyles for better health, better nutrition and a more sustainable earth”

The Toyota Together Green grant makes it possible to continue to each out to religious communities, which includes cooking classes for healthful food, bringing farmers’ markets to the south side as well as sponsoring health fairs that include “alternative” health options, including yoga and better eating.

The farm, in effect, sprouted from The Vernon Park Church of God’s pressing need for more space, having outgrown its original location on Chicago’s south side. The church’s pastor, the Reverend Jerald January, envisioned purchasing and building not only a church campus, but a community including single family and senior housing, education, health and recreational facilities as well as a small garden for senior citizens.

A church member let the Veron Park congreation know about a farm for sale on the outskirts of Chicago, but the organic farm at 70-plus acres, outstripped the church’s parcel needs as well as its budget.

The owners (the three daughters of a deceased farmer), worked something out with the church, selling the entire property for cash. It was only at the real estate close that the daughters disclosed that they had held onto the land for a number of years because it was their father’s wish to sell the land to a religious institution. Calling the farmer a man of deep faith, the Reverend January said,

“he would have been shouting and praising the lord,” …had he been at the close.

It’s clear to me and to many others that the limited access to good food in inner city neighborhoods only underscores the social inequality that plays out across many aspects of life in Chicago. When you go to a store like Whole Foods, you can see who’s not there. Inner city, working people are unable to afford prices, for example, as high as $4 for a dozen organic eggs. Wealthier city residents shopping at upscale food stores, tend to be thinner and healthier than shoppers in less affluent neighborhoods with less access to fresh fruits and vegetables. -

In the Vernon Park Church of God Chicago neighborhood, a local supermarket was empty for years, making access to reasonably-priced healthy foods difficult, part of the reason that the Church wanted to do something about the situation, rather than just complaining or waiting for someone else to do something.

The Church and its congregants decided to take its food destiny into its own hand, and purchased the land and started farming…

“with strong faith and a shoestring budget,”

…as Pastor January says. The Church also views the farm as an opportunity to provide jobs and work training as well.

A little less than an acre was farmed the first year; the second year, 2013, about 5 ½ acres; and this spring goal is to have 8-10, maybe 12 acres under cultivation to the farm manager, according to Anthony Williamson, who is a church deacon.

The farm funds itself by selling shares directly to congregation members for the harvest: $300 for a full share; $150 a half share. The farm sold about 200 shares last year, and it is estimated that the sale of 350-400 full shares would be self-sustaining. The Church delivers vegetables to city customers by van twice a month. Mother Carr also sold surplus produce directly to a restaurant in Chicago Heights, Java Sip, a deli sandwich shop, and is looking to expand direct sales to restaurants this harvest year.

Last year the farm produced 50,000 – 60,000 pounds of vegetables and plans on tripling production this year. Some 30 different kinds of vegetables, as well as herbs, spices and teas, like chamomile are grown. Mother Carr’s Organic Farm also produced and sold 10 gallons of honey last year from six hives, with plans to put a total of 20 hives into production. “Getting stung,” says farm manager Anthony Williamson,

“that’s your initiation into beekeeping.”

Run as an organic, sustainable farm, the church constructed four sustainable, sophisticated water retention ponds on the property as a water source (non-chlorinated) to grow crops, rather than drawing from Chicago’s municipal water or constructing and pumping from energy-intensive wells.

The water is purified by being drawn through gravel, river stone and rock “filters” encircling the pond. This spring, the farm is setting aside some land as a butterfly refuge, planting milk thistle, which provides a butterfly-friendly habitat.

This spring, we’re actively seeking to expand beyond last year’s 20-strong volunteers corp. We held and will be holding more community events and farm demonstrations at local community and four-year colleges to enlist interns considering careers in organic farming. This is social justice in action.

Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?

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