Reverend Curtis Whitaker of Progressing Community Church International is on a mission.
Pastor Gary wants to create an oasis of locally grown organic produce in the heart of the city to transform it from a food desert into a place where residents can find the nutritious food they need without traveling to another community.
For nine years, Whitaker worked toward that goal through FAITH Farms and Orchards at 656 Carolina St., across from the abandoned Emerson School building. What started with a few plants for seven years is a growing farm that now includes chickens, goats and bees.
On Monday, local dignitaries, hospital officials and faculty from Indiana University Northwest and Bloomington gathered at the site to celebrate a $500,000 grant from the USDA to implement the new program from the farm, FAITH Food is Medicine. The program is a partnership between 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 want to participate must obtain a prescription from their doctor from Methodist Hospitals for Healthy Eating. Participants will receive one box per week of healthy, locally grown food for a year in an effort to combat common illnesses in the community, including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
The goal is to increase access to fresh produce in the city and increase residents’ consumption of such produce, Whitaker said.
The funding will also have economic benefits for the community. Whitaker said he would be able to hire three or four employees to work on the farm, which is currently supported by volunteers. The median income for the neighborhood where the farm is located is about $13,000. Whitaker said part-time positions will pay $20,000 per year while a full-time position will pay $40,000.
The grant will also help raise other urban farmers within the city limits. There are over 30 urban farms in the city that grow produce.
“The grant allows us to buy food from black farmers in Gary,” Whitaker said. Francine Birgans, who was a volunteer, was appointed director of the Food is Medicine program.
Lake County Commissioner Kyle Allen, D-Gary, said not everyone is lucky enough to be able to travel to another community where retailers want to be to buy food they can’t. find in their own neighborhood.
“Food is something in the country of the United States that we take for granted,” Allen said, adding that he was supportive of Whitaker’s efforts.
“We just believe in him. We believe in what he does. We believe in this investment,” Allen said.
The USDA grant is the second major grant announced by Faith CDC in the past 30 days. The company received a $425,000 grant from the Feeding in America Food Security Equity Fund, administered by the Northwest Indiana Food Bank, to build a quick-freeze facility to capture extra fresh produce grown at the farm. On October 11, the Lake County Council offered to provide $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the flash freezing project. County commissioners are expected to approve the spending on Wednesday.
Matt Doyle, president and CEO of Methodist Hospitals, said that as healthcare evolves, hospitals are stepping out of their own four walls and into the community to help improve people’s health. He said the FAITH Food is Medicine program is a launch pad and will be an example for all communities of what can happen with these types of partnerships.
“It’s access to these kinds of fresh produce and foods that we know leads to better health,” Doyle said.
Farm administrator Frieda Graves said this year the farm produced about 14,000 pounds of produce which was distributed through monthly community-supported farm boxes, sales at the farmers market and to people in need. Graves said about 1,000 people bought or received food from the farm.