Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Planting Farms in the City

Black churches hope farmers markets change eating habits in Chicago 'food desert'
Local farmers and urban growers are asked to sell food at churches
By Manya A. Brachear | Tribune reporterJuly 17, 2009

Faith and food

Brittani Wofford (left) and Gerri Glass plant eggplant with William Pollion (background) and his kids, Lauryn and Joshua, at Avalon Park Community Church.(Tribune photo by Antonio Perez / June 22, 2009)

While farmers markets and garden parties might be associated more with upscale wine-and-cheese communities around Chicago, the wine-and-wafer crowds of North Lawndaleand other neighborhoods are now getting in on the action, but more out of necessity than to be trendy.

This month, several churches on the city's South and West Sides have recruited local farmers and urban growers to peddle their produce at farmers markets, filling what organizers called a void in fresh fruit and vegetables in their communities.

Last week, Trinity United Church of Christ on the Far South Side unveiled a weekly farmers market in their church parking lot. On Saturday, Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in North Lawndale will launch a similar open-air market on the West Side.

Trinity and others have planted seeds for a community garden as well.

Related linksSeeds of change in 'food desert' PhotosRev. Paul Robeson Ford, pastor of Avalon Park Community Church, said he wants the Far South Side neighborhood to "be on the front end of this new green economy." Members of his United Church of Christ congregation recently planted tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and peppers.

"This is an exercise that can help us toward healthy eating. It's an exercise toward self-sustained communities," Ford said.

According to a recent report by theMinnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the churches' efforts are in line with a growing nationwide movement within the faith community to promote wholesome diets and encourage Christians to care for and cultivate the Earth.

The healthy-diet initiative also represents an emerging social justice movement in African-American churches in neighborhoods without major grocery store chains -- areas also known as "food deserts."

Some churches plan to donate their homegrown produce to food pantries and soup kitchens. Others intend to offer the harvest to their congregations with recipes to preserve their African cultural cuisine and health.

Charlayne Guy-Moore, health ministry coordinator at Greater Galilee, recalls shopping at the store near her church after learning her daughter was at risk for diabetes.

Disgusted by the withered greens there, she surveyed church members and found that many of them could not afford natural and organic stores and could not commute to open-air markets.

"As African-Americans and Latinos ... we basically eat what's available to us. That's one of the problems," Guy-Moore said.

Many of the churches involved are in food deserts. Researchers have found residents there tend to buy food at gas stations and convenience stores.

The most recent research by Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based consultant, showed that more than 600,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts, most of them are African-American, and many are classified as working poor without a car.

Gallagher said supermarkets or healthy alternatives such as farmers markets add years to the lives of residents suffering from cardiovascular and kidney diseases and diabetes.

Access is only part of the problem, said Charles Williams, director of faith, community and governmental partnerships for the University of Illinois at Chicago's Healthy Cities Collaborative. In communities with high incidence of obesity, chronic disease and economic disparities, fostering a craving is crucial. Several markets launched in Englewoodand Bronzeville last year did not do as well as hoped. This year, the Bronzeville market moved to Saturdays from Sundays to lure churchgoers who might be shopping for Sunday dinners and potlucks.

To entice customers, Trinity offered demonstrations in vegetarian and raw-food preparation to illustrate how African-American cuisine can be healthy. At Greater Galilee, a nutritionist will explain the value of cooking with fresh ingredients.

Guy-Moore also hopes to establish a relationship with a community supported agriculture program, which delivers farmers' yields to consumers who purchase a share of seasonal production.

Encouraging merchants to accommodate African-American taste buds is also key. Vendors accustomed to selling bok choy might consider offering cabbage and collard greens instead of cauliflower, red beans instead of chick peas, grits instead of couscous.

Williams said eating right means knowing what to eat and why.

"You can look across faith traditions and find scriptural roots for healthy eating," he said, pointing to dietary commandments in the Bible and Quran. "Pulpits are a powerful place ... for not only meeting the needs of the soul but also meeting the needs of the physical body."

Guy-Moore agreed.

"We're supposed to take care of our brothers," she said. "The whole purpose behind what we're doing is evangelism."

Ford said these churches also have a unique obligation to heal the disparities plaguing the African-American community.

"The black community continues to be disproportionately unemployed and undereducated. Here's an opportunity to be involved in this green economy," Ford said. "It could sustain our people individually."

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