Katie Hill

In early December, the Healthy Food Hub—a Black-owned agricultural cooperative—announced that, after nearly three years in South Shore, it would be moving its operations to Englewood’s Barbara A. Sizemore Academy.

The Hub had come to South Shore on the invitation of residents and organizers to help the neighborhood address its food access concerns. South Shore has seen nearly four years pass without a grocery store despite promises from the alderman to bring one in. Though the Hub is moving to cut costs and to gain access to a larger space, they don’t see the move as an end to their relationship with South Shore, but rather as an opportunity to expand the reach and impact of their produce on the South Side.

Founded by holistic doctor Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter and her husband Fred Carter (the Beyoncé and Jay-Z of permaculture as they have occasionally been called), the Healthy Food Hub is a variant on the Community Supported Agriculture model. Instead of paying upfront for a regular portion of one farm’s harvest, the Hub’s 200+ members pay an annual membership fee of twenty-five dollars and place customizable weekly orders for produce grown by Black farmers, primarily in Pembroke, where the Wright-Carter family runs a sustainability center and organic farm, but also in the Chicagoland suburbs and on the South Side.

They’re working on building a “peri-urban” food system that connects Black eaters, growers, and farmers in the greater Chicagoland region—a system that’s built on restorative, rather than extractive and exploitative, relationships.

“The example they set is how to involve community in the process of building the local food system—not simply give people what they think they want but to actually find out what the community wants,” says Safia Rashid, who is a member of the Hub and the founder of Your Bountiful Harvest, a Grand Boulevard–based agricultural education organization. “I appreciate them allowing everyday folks to professionals to come together in one space and work together.”

Now, the Hub is working to maintain that level of community accountability while settling into its new home in Englewood. They’re taking the winter to restructure their membership structure and scale up operations so that they can serve Chicagoland residents whether they live in South Shore, Englewood, or the South Suburbs.

In anticipation of their Englewood market days, which will begin in April, the Weekly spoke with Dr. J about the Hub, the power of a peri-urban food network, and the work that lies ahead.

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Transitions are never easy, but they’re good, and I think this transition is no exception. It’s been a lot of support from everyone and it’s clear that we’re going to be approaching food access in high-need areas in a different way. That’s really what’s afoot right now.

Would you talk a little bit about the origin of the Black Oaks Center and how it runs the Healthy Food Hub?

The Black Oaks Center is a nonprofit that is committed to helping communities become resilient. We’re a little over ten years old and we knew that skills-building was what was hugely needed to prepare people to transition to a low-carbon, resource-constrained way of life.  How do we live inside of this [world] and thrive?

There’s four skills-building tracks: there’s a sustainable building track, there’s a sustainable energy track, and what we call the resilience track, which is the ability to manage your head and your relationships. And the one that everybody’s familiar with is the sustainable agriculture track: growing nutrient dense food, organically and sustainably, and facilitating the development of a local food system from Pembroke to Chicago. The Healthy Food Hub is the activity of the sustainable agriculture track, it’s really not a separate thing.

It was in South Shore for a little more than two years. We were at Betty Shabazz [International Charter School, in Greater Grand Crossing] for five years, from 2009 to 2014. [When] Betty Shabazz was having construction, we were unable to have the market there so we were invited to come and help South Shore address its food access issues—and that’s how we landed at the Quarry, through the facilitation of Yvette Moyo [founder of South Shore–based organization Real Men Cook].

The beautiful thing about being at the Quarry is that it gave me this opportunity to go from what my visions were of what was possible in healthcare to actually experiencing it. My patients could actually come to the Quarry on a Saturday, they could get the food that they needed, they could get the medicinal herbs that they needed, and they could see me as a patient.

To address the high levels of morbidity and mortality in low-income, low-food-access communities…[you] gotta build deep relationships. There’s a lot of teaching that goes on, a lot of teaching and sharing. To have a scenario where people are really getting that you can actually eat a pumpkin and not just make a jack-o’-lantern—and actually taste it in a stew or in a beverage, and for the community to be able to do it together, it’s very remarkable.

How does the relationship work on the other side? Talk a little bit about the peri-urban network and how you cultivate relationships with growers from Pembroke to Chicago.

In order to make a local food system, you have to look at the landscape. A city can’t seed itself. There’s just not enough space—unless we were doing this very, very energy-intensive vertical agriculture.  In urban areas, there’s less land and there’s more people. When we go into southern Cook [County], in Kankakee County, there’s more land and less people. … The peri-urban model is really necessary for the vitality of all three regions.

The urban being able to support the rural, that’s part of our commitment. Where I’m sitting right now, [Pembroke], a historic Black farming community, happens to be one of the poorest townships in the state of Illinois financially. But it has a legacy of being able to seed many towns and neighborhoods to the north, going on into Chicago. Propping that economic engine back up and sourcing healthy food in areas where it’s needed: that’s our vision and that’s our commitment and focus. And you know, we can do that with food. And we’re slowly doing it with food. There’s definitely more people growing food, more people looking to production as a means of income, and more people being exposed to local food as a concept.

We have cultivated growers through our farmer training program, we have developed relationships through the farmer training program, with producers or growers as mentors, and we have provided a foundation for urban farmers to generate income. If you wanted to get a range of locally grown products from Black farmers, Black growers—urban, suburban, or rural—the Healthy Food Hub is definitely the place to come. And we’re very proud of that.

You’ve just moved from South Shore, which is still without a grocery store, into Englewood, a historically under-invested neighborhood whose food access infrastructure is rapidly changing. What are you thinking about in terms of food access between the two neighborhoods?

You know, since we’ve been in South Shore, not only has South Shore not gotten a grocery store, but there’s numbers of neighborhoods that have lost the stores that they had and there’s indicators that neither South Shore nor those other neighborhoods will get a grocery store back.

Perhaps there’s those that would sit and wait for affluent white people to move into these challenged communities and then the groceries will come. But in the meantime we have a wonderful ecological, economic opportunity where we can have the people in that neighborhood grow the food and be networked into a peri-urban local food system infrastructure that we’re creating—that would help to retain money within that network, within that community, and to get the best quality food.

One of the main things that we’ve kept hearing from [Englewood] residents is, “I really can’t afford to go to [the Whole Foods in] Englewood.” … So on the one hand I’m sure that Whole Foods is serving somebody’s needs in Englewood, but apparently there’s a whole other dimension of food needs that are still not being addressed.

And as we used to say, who loves you more? [laughs] A grocery store is not gonna be interested in you learning how to prepare the foods in the most healthful way, or if they are, it’s so that they can increase sales. If you are part of a community, you want your community to be well, so there’s a whole other dimension to your intent that’s much deeper than just a conversation around “How do I increase the amount of people purchasing?”

What do the coming months look like in terms of moving, scaling up, and restructuring?

We’ve heard from quite a few South Shorians who are dismayed. Unfortunately, there are still residents who show up every Saturday since we left. And we are in the process of establishing a new relationship in South Shore.

There’s also been a request on behalf of Roseland, two neighborhoods on the West Side, and neighborhoods in southern Cook [County]—Robbins, Ford Heights, Markham, Harvey, and Dixmoor. So that’s what we’re turning to address right now is, my god, there’s more and more communities that are in greater need and we can’t just have a hub in one place.

Our commitment is to [becoming] a nonprofit cooperative food hub. That would be a vertically integrated food hub where there’s members who are eaters, members who are workers, and members who are growers. So everyone would have input, but the eaters should be letting the growers know what they want to eat, and workers may be sharing with the growers and the eaters how it’s going to work to get the food to them—but you shouldn’t have the eaters telling the growers how to grow [laughs].

We’re really working toward deepening our members’ investments and working toward a cooperative model. Our members have actually been meeting and we’re about to roll out a drive and MyTab—[a system] where our members guests and supporters will pay at minimum twenty dollars per month and then they would tell us what it is they need (so, a dozen of lemons per week, or every two weeks). Then they would have option of picking it up, or having it delivered to their doorsteps, or picking it up at a drop-off center. ’Cause we have members all over the city and South Suburbs and this is our way of getting people’s needs met, even though we are under reconstruction. We are slowing down to strengthen our core. It’s been a gift in a lot of ways to be able to fix everything so that we can be stronger coming out in the spring.

We’re giving ourselves a good ninety days to do everything: crop planning, working collectively with our growers, and rolling out our therapeutic foods program. We’ll be training people from within the organizations that we’re collaborating with in the communities we’ll be located in to actually run the hubs so that this growing season there could be more than one hub going on at the same time.

We’re very proud that through the efforts of our members, our community, our family, we were able to gross over $100,000 in sales. Those were dollars that went into local foods from within our community, from South Shore, from Ford Heights, from Robbins, and the outlying communities around Oak Forest. And we did that under-resourced, with limited capacity. Right now our goal is to strengthen our capacity, broaden it, deepen it, perfect our process, so that we can be better equipped to handle the demand.

We definitely started out as a social movement around food justice and food equality and the possibility of food security and food sovereignty. I think the lesson, if you ask me, going on nine years, is that you still need an economic base. Social movements need to be able to yield to something that’s going to last and continue to keep the values and the mission and the vision alive.

It’s going to have to be hashed out, is what I’m saying. When you have this concept of collective ownership—and then someone’s telling someone what they think should happen, but they’re not the one who’s experiencing it—you have to make sure that wires don’t cross.

So we’re trying our best to do what we usually do, and that’s to learn from what worked and what didn’t work.

Healthy Food Hub, Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, 6547 S. Stewart Ave. Starting in April, Saturdays, 11am–3pm; interim pop-up market days TBA. (773) 410-3446. healthyfoodhub.org

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