Reverend Curtis Whitaker of Progressive Church International is on a mission.
Reverend Gary wants to create an oasis of locally grown organic produce in the heart of the city to transform it from a food desert to a place where residents can find the nutritious foods they need without traveling to another community.
For nine years, Whitaker has been working towards this goal through FAITH Farms and Orchards at 656 Carolina St. , across the street from the abandoned Emerson School Building. What started with a few plants seven years ago is a growing farm that now includes chickens, goats and bees.
On Monday, local dignitaries, hospital officials and professors from Northwestern Indiana University and Bloomington gathered at the site to celebrate a $500,000 grant from the USDA to implement the farm’s newest program, FAITH Food is Medicine. The program is a partnership that includes the farm, Methodist Hospitals, and the university. Whitaker said he learned Friday that the Indiana Department of Health had awarded an $89,000 grant to the FAITH Food is Medicine program.
Whitaker said the grant provides funding for 75 participants. Those who wish to participate must obtain a prescription from their physician at Methodist Hospitals for healthy food. Participants will receive a week’s box of healthy, locally grown foods for a year in an effort to combat common ailments in the community including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
The goal is to increase access to fresh produce in the city and increase the population’s consumption of those products, Whitaker said.
The financing will also have some economic benefits to the community. Whitaker said he will be able to hire three or four employees to work on the farm, which is currently supported by volunteers. The median income in the neighborhood where the farm is located is about $13,000. Whitaker said part-time jobs will pay $20,000 a year while a full-time job will pay $40,000.
The grant will also help raise other urban farmers in the city limits. There are more than 30 urban farms in the city that grow produce.
“The grant allows us to buy food from black farmers in Gary,” Whitaker said. Francine Bergans, who was a volunteer, was selected as director of the Food is Medicine program.
Lake County Commissioner Kyle Allen, D-Gary, said not all people are fortunate enough to be able to travel to another community where retailers want to buy food they don’t find in their neighborhoods.
“Food is something in the country of the United States that we take for granted,” Allen said, adding that he supports Whitaker’s efforts.
“We just believe in him. We believe in what he does. We believe in this investment,” Allen said.
The USDA scholarship is the second major scholarship announced by Faith CDC in the past 30 days. The foundation received a $425,000 grant from the Nutrition Fund of America for Food Security, which is operated by the Northwest Indiana Food Bank to build a quick-freezing facility to capture additional fresh produce grown on the farm. The Lake County Council moved on October 11 to provide $400,000 in US Rescue Plan funds for the Quick Freeze Project. County commissioners are expected to approve the expenditures Wednesday.
As health care evolves, hospitals are coming out of their four walls into the community to help improve people’s health, said Matt Doyle, president and CEO of Methodist Hospitals. He said the FAITH Food is Medicine program is a springboard and will be an example to all communities what can happen with these kinds of partnerships.
“Access to the kind of fresh produce and food that we know leads to better health,” Doyle said.
This year the farm has grown about 14,000 pounds of produce that has been distributed through monthly community-supported farm trusts and farmers and needy market sales, said Freda Graves, the farm manager. About 1,000 people have bought or received food from the farm, Greaves said.
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