Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.1
Food is medicine. When you are not properly nourished you cannot think, reason, or behave normally. When you are properly fed you have the ability to operate at your full physical and mental potential. Many in our communities are not operating at their full potential simply because they are not able to feed themselves properly and lack basic nourishment on a physical as well as a spiritual level. As it stands now, if you live in a nice neighborhood free of crime and full of successful businesses, banks, and grocery stores, then you get to eat right. However, if you live in a place that has been cleared out for some reason of all community centers, reputable businesses, and store,s then those without the luxury of transportation are left to shop at food and liquor convenience stores with high priced, sometimes out of date, unhealthy food. Families get used to eating this food over time, thus changing local demand. Before long you have something called a “food desert,” just like in my neighborhood of Greater Englewood. A food desert is a geographic area where affordable and healthy food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile.2
Last December, President Obama spoke at an event in Washington D.C. saying,
The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own – that should offend all of us, and it should compel us to action.3
In my neighborhood of Greater Englewood I see people every day dying prematurely from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke as well as homicide. At the age of 32 I am the eldest member of my family, as everyone older than me has died prematurely from cancer or heart disease, both of which are preventable diet related diseases. We have lived in a food desert for the past 30 years or more. Now that the illness or dis-ease has finally been diagnosed on a community level as a true public health concern we can work towards a healing solution together. Because not just one thing caused food deserts to exist, there will not be just one solution to the problem. We all can play our very own part in turning around the food desert crises in our communities.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless; and see that they get justice (Proverbs 31:8-9).
God is calling us to shine a light on the injustices that plague our communities and cities by all means necessary. All of us as individuals, but especially faith-based institutions and non-profit organizations, should take a closer look at our missions and ministries and ask ourselves: are we really being as effective as needed in order to turn around the odds for people in communities similar to Greater Englewood. Do we really even know what the exact needs are so we can have the capacity to positively impact? Are we really being a community or city that “views her future as their own” when it comes to food injustices and other social justice ills? We are called to be the advocates, the providers, teachers and healers to those communities that God has called us to serve, to those communities that we should serve because we can literally reach a hand out to assist. Those who God has called us to serve often cannot speak up for themselves and it is our duty to see to it that they get justice.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).
In most cases, our communities are suffering from food injustices because there is a lack of knowledge. I’m not just referring to the institutional or elementary type of knowledge, but rather the basic news and information about resources and overall healthy living. The type of knowledge one can receive just by approaching or being approached by a smiling, caring individual on the street or their doorstep, or at a church or community center, who offers some potentially life-saving information. There are a number of organizations and ministries dedicated to issues around food access and food security. Especially in low-income communities, faith-based organizations have been the number one provider of soup kitchens and food pantries. In these new times of our food desert diagnosis and alarming rates of preventable diet related deaths, we can all stand to improve our community outreach efforts when it comes to tackling food injustice and other social ills that plague communities with such great needs.
I proudly serve as the Outreach Manager for the non-profit social enterprise Growing Home, Inc. The organization’s mission is to operate, demonstrate, and promote the use of organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. Growing Home has been known to serve three main needs since it came to the Greater Englewood community: 1) to put hard-to-employ people to work, 2) to improve food access by selling our organic produce at a discount to Greater Englewood residents, and 3) to promote the education of gardening, nutrition, healthy cooking, and a number of other issues related to community development.
The organization operates the first and only USDA-certified organic farm in the city of Chicago. Located in West Englewood, it anchors one of three newly created Urban Agriculture Districts in the community. Growing Home is operated by multi-talented and deeply compassionate people who have personal as well as professional commitments to serving people.
Growing Home trains 40 men and women a year and assists with placing them in full-time permanent jobs. The program is specifically designed for and is only open to individuals with multiple barriers to employment. That can mean formerly incarcerated or homeless men and women or those with many other challenges which keep them from securing employment. During the 14-week program the Production Assistants help grow the produce at four sites: the Wood and Honore Street Urban Farms, Su Casa Market Garden, and Les Brown Memorial Farm in Marseilles, IL. They also take classes in agricultural sciences, job readiness, nutrition, and food safety. Graduates from the program go on to a variety of career options such as cooks, landscapers, and customer service professionals.
The Wood Street Urban Farm located at 5814 S Wood Street operates year round. It grows a variety of crops for market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. Some of its most popular items are spinach, carrots, arugula, tomatoes, and basil. In 2011, the Wood Street Farm grew 13,000 lbs of produce and in 2013 the farms grew 24,000 lbs of produce. The organization hopes to triple production as well as double the number of people trained within the next few years.
Growing Home also has a deep commitment to helping improve food access in the Greater Englewood community. As part of its community outreach efforts, every Wednesday from May through October the farm hosts “Wednesdays at Wood Street,” where residents come to the farm for free tours, an organic farm stand that offers a double value incentive for Link card customers—Chicago’s food stamp program—and gardening or nutrition workshops. After employing a strategic community organizing campaign to educate residents and others about Growing Home and its offerings, the farm has seen produce sales and attendance at open house events double for the past two years. The farm in West Englewood has become a safe and fun filled gathering space for neighbors of all ages.
In addition to holding classes on gardening, the organization also helps neighborhood groups and churches get their community garden projects started by directing them to resources. Community gardening is turning into yet another tool for organizing neighbors and blocks around positive community re-building initiatives. It serves the same purposes that our block clubs used to serve: providing an outlet for recreation and communication for neighbors, something that is usually lacking in similar communities. Additionally, with so much of the neighborhood being covered with vacant city-owned land, the organization encourages others to use those blank slates as they see fit to create unity and beauty on their blocks. Growing Home provides support for two nearby community gardens that have definitely made an impact on neighbors. The Hermitage Street Community Garden and the Meet & Greet Community Garden are both located within walking distance from the Wood Street Urban Farm in West Englewood.
Growing Home is also an active member of a council dedicated to improving food access. Grow Greater Englewood is a coalition of residents, organizations, and elected officials who hope to develop a healthy local food system, increase education about food and nutrition, and encourage food related community and economic development projects.
This model provides examples of different strategies that we all could take to combat food injustices and other ills that plague similar communities. Whether it is by making a commitment to be a provider of education about food, nutrition, and wellness for those who need it, or by doing something to directly affect food access by gardening, farming, or advocating for new food developments and speaking up for better access overall in a particular community, there are countless ways to get engaged to see to it that those who suffer from food injustice finally get justice.
For more information about Growing Home, Inc. contact growinghomeinc.org or call (773) 549-1336.
Have you participated in community supported agriculture? Has it impacted your sense of connection to the food you consume?
An urban farm that creates job-training opportunities for difficult-to-employ people is a creative response to injustice. To what other creative responses might God be calling us?