Jason Schumer

Two long, drip-irrigated plant beds run parallel to the southernmost wall of KAM Isaiah Israel, a Reform synagogue that straddles the border between Hyde Park and Kenwood. Some sections of the two beds bear different varieties of kale and collard greens. Others are filled with what appear to be weeds but are actually a cover crop, storing up carbon and nitrogen in the soil for produce that will be planted in weeks to come.

Over nine growing seasons, this garden, along with three others tended by volunteers of KAM Isaiah Israel (KAMII), has produced eleven tons of fruits and vegetables, which have been donated to hot meal kitchens and CHA senior-designated housing in the Hyde Park and Kenwood area.

These gardens are a key facet of the synagogue’s Food Justice and Sustainability program, which seeks to mitigate food inequity in its community by contributing produce to existing social welfare programs in the area. Through the program, the synagogue also trains others—religious institutions and individuals alike—to emulate the KAMII model in their own neighborhoods.

KAMII is not the only one doing this work; Faith in Place, a Chicago-based nonprofit, aims to “educate, connect, and advocate for healthier communities” by assisting houses of worship statewide to adopt more sustainable environmental practices. Both Faith in Place and KAMII are part of an interfaith movement in which religious institutions engage with urban agriculture.

A single house of worship solving the food access crisis with a small plot of land, of course, is unrealistic. “Eleven tons of food…[is] not really a lot of food,” Robert Nevel, a congregant of KAMII and the founder of the Food Justice and Sustainability program, points out. But supplementing their growing program is a burgeoning educational model that, Nevel says, “allows us to expand our reach, and expand the work by helping train up folks to do this work.”

He’s talking about KAMII’s MLK Food Justice and Sustainability Weekend and the Farm and Food Forest School, founded in 2010 and 2011, respectively, shortly following the establishment of their vegetable garden in 2009. Both are a collection of talks and workshops free and open to the public, and the primary means by which KAMII disseminates knowledge around urban agriculture. “We have hundreds of people come to the Martin Luther King Weekend, and they see what we do,” Nevel said. “And then they go start programs like ours.”

Faith in Place also seeks to spread knowledge about the social justice potential behind urban agriculture. Veronica Kyle, Chicago outreach director for Faith in Place, told me that they “wanted to educate people to start to have this love affair with the idea that putting a seed in the ground can put something healthy on your dinner table.” But while KAMII runs their own pedagogical programs, Faith in Place provides houses of worship with a model—the Green Team model—with which to educate their congregations. Members of the Green Team are essentially congregants from a house of worship who receive training from Faith in Place before undertaking the mission to spread that knowledge to their fellow churchgoers.

Faith in Place and KAMII’s educational models share some key components: namely, that they encourage other houses of worship to start programs that benefit their own local communities, and to do so in ways that complement existing food and social justice programs.

KAM Isaiah Israel’s relationship with Kenwood United Church of Christ (KUCC)—a church located five blocks north of the synagogue—is an exemplar of their locally oriented model. KUCC has long been engaged with food justice, having started their Feed the People hot meal program in 1983. KAMII began to donate much of their produce to KUCC’s soup kitchen during their first harvest eight years ago and have done so ever since. Nevel and his crew of volunteers later converted an unutilized plot of land directly to the west of the church into a vegetable garden, which they tend to this day along with their on-site plots.

“One of the hallmarks of our program is that the food that’s harvested typically doesn’t travel more than a mile or a mile-and-a-half from where it’s harvested,” Nevel told me. KAMII’s focus on locality is evident in the programming for their Farm and Food Forest School and MLK Weekend: “They can learn how to replicate them by coming to work with us, or by coming to the Martin Luther King Weekend, or by coming to Farm and Food Forest School, and they can go start a program like ours in their walking community.”

Although Faith in Place operates on a statewide level, its programming has a similar focus on religious institutions’ local impacts. “For the most part, we meet places of worship who focus on food justice, where they are,” Kyle told me. “Whatever we can do to help them eradicate food injustices in their community.” Faith in Place does so by providing grants or gardening equipment, or by facilitating winter farmers’ markets at houses of worship, at which customers are able to use Link cards to buy produce. The resources they provide depend on the needs of the faith partners they work with, and what their faith partners have already managed to accomplish—many of whom, as Kyle reminds me, “have always played a part in social justice and food justice issues.”

To date, Faith in Place has helped ten places of worship on the South Side to establish gardens, and has set up thirteen winter farmers’ markets among these and more. They have worked closely with one church in particular, the Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) in Roseland. TUCC started a vegetable garden on their own—the George Washington Carver Garden—in 2009, the same year that KAMII started theirs.

Reverend Dr. Stacey Edwards-Dunn of TUCC told me that their growing operation arose from the needs of the local Roseland community. “We are in a food desert,” she said. “We do not have a grocery store that offers fresh fruits and vegetables.” (The nearest grocery stores are a mile or more away, placing Roseland within the category of food desert, as defined by the USDA.) Produce of the George Washington Carver Garden is dispensed in a variety of ways to Roseland residents: it’s either given out to congregants and community members, or sold via the farmers’ markets they host, which—like Faith in Place’s Winter Farmers’ Markets program—accept Illinois Link cards to ensure financial accessibility.

Although TUCC began their garden and market independently, Faith in Place has collaborated with them to create more robust and far-reaching programming. The two organizations partnered to host the Green the Church Summit in 2015—a three-day conference focusing on how engagement with sustainable food and energy practices can help faith organizations better conditions in black communities. “Faith in Place has… been very instrumental in helping all of us to perpetuate the mission and the education around this,” Edwards-Dunn said.

The Green the Church Summit is only a part of TUCC and Faith in Place’s collaboration around education and agriculture. “We are very intentional about educating our congregation around the importance of environmental justice, and food justice,” Edwards-Dunn said. “We have also educated and trained people in our congregation to have their own garden.” Faith in Place has helped to expand the educational potential of the George Washington Carver Garden by hosting part of their Eco-Ambassador Youth Program there—their way of instilling the next generation with a green thumb.

This has resulted in something of a ripple effect, according to Edwards-Dunn, wherein the practice of urban agriculture, as a means to supplement food from traditional sources, spreads outward from religious institutions. “You will find a number of people in the congregation who also have their own gardens…at their own homes,” she said.

Twila Jones, a parishioner of St. Paul and the Redeemer, an episcopal church located in Hyde Park, observes a similar phenomenon. KAMII helped the congregants at St. Paul to start their own vegetable garden five years ago. Like KAMII, St. Paul and the Redeemer donates its produce to a nearby social program, the St. Martin de Porres House of Hope shelter for women and children in Woodlawn. Since its second year, St. Paul’s operation has been completely run by parishioners like Jones. Jones herself is deeply involved with the garden project.

Jones has noticed a swell in interest in urban gardening amongst individuals she knows. “I’m looking on Facebook, and a lot of my friends are doing the same thing, or thinking about it.” This is something she attributes to the educational opportunities made available through religious institutions. She attended KAMII’s MLK Weekend several years ago and left with a favorable impression. “It is a phenomenal community resource for those who just want to start a garden at home, even.”

Jones has a vegetable garden at her home in Avalon Park. It’s a practice which she hopes grows among members of her community, particularly in light of the scarcity of produce on the South Side—a “disturbing trend” that she’s noticed even in her own neighborhood. “We had a Save-A-Lot and ALDI in walking distance from my house, and they both closed in the past few years,” she told me.

In Jones’s eyes, raising urban agriculture in esteem will require a change in thinking. “It is a mental shift, right? A lot of the aversion to agricultural and gardening I think is rooted in the fact that we [African Americans] were forced to do it for someone else for so long…But a lot of us are shifting to see it as a labor of love for our communities, and as a means of exercising self-reliance.”

The concept of self-reliance cropped up with almost everyone I spoke to, particularly when the subject turned to access to fresh food on the South Side. Veronica Kyle of Faith in Place, for one, is disillusioned with traditional means of obtaining food. “I don’t think we’re going to ever be comfortable again relying on a grocery store institution to be the only place we can get food. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” she said. “And you know what? It shouldn’t.”

Kyle understands that urban agriculture is no panacea for food scarcity, and that there would be a long way to go before her vision is realized. “I don’t want to kid myself. It would take every house of worship and some, and every community and some, planting food,” she admitted. “But what this is, is self-empowerment. And it’s a start.”

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve been part of the Food Justice work begun at KAMII and each year our produce helps many people enjoy fresh foods. I love this article and thank you for sharing all this information.

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