The Rev. Curtis Whitaker of Progressing Community Church International is on a mission.
The Gary pastor wants to create an oasis of organic locally grown 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 toward that goal through FAITH Farms and Orchards at 656 Carolina St., across the street from the abandoned Emerson School building. What began with a few plants seven years is a growing farm which now includes chickens, goats and bees.
Monday local dignitaries, hospital officials, and professors from Indiana University Northwest 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 including the farm, Methodist Hospitals and university. Whitaker said he learned Friday the Indiana Department of Health awarded an $89,000 grant for the FAITH Food is Medicine program.
Whitaker said the grant provides funding for 75 participants. Those who want to participate must get a prescription from their doctor at Methodist Hospitals for healthy food. The participants will receive a box a week of healthy, locally grown food for a year in an effort to combat diseases common in the community including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
The goal is to increase access to fresh produce in the city and increase consumption of that produce by residents, Whitaker said.
The funding will also have some economic benefits for the community. Whitaker said he will be able to hire three or four employees to work at the farm, which currently is volunteer supported. The median income in the neighborhood where the farm is located is about $13,000. Whitaker said the part-time positions will pay $20,000 a year while a full-time position will pay $40,000.
The grant also will help raise up other urban farmers in the city limits. There are more than 30 urban farms in the city growing produce.
“The grant allows us to purchase food from Black farmers in Gary,” Whitaker said. Francine Birgans, who was a volunteer, has been tapped as the 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 be to buy food they can’t find in their own neighborhoods.
“Food is something in the country of the U.S. we take for granted,” Allen said, adding he supports Whitaker’s efforts.
“We just believe in him. We believe in what he’s doing. 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 enterprise received a $425,000 grant from the Feeding in America Food Security Equity Fund, administered by The Food Bank of Northwest Indiana to build a flash freezing facility to capture the extra fresh produce grown at the farm. The Lake County Council Oct. 11 moved to provide $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the flash freezing project. County commissioners are expected to approve the expenditure Wednesday.
Matt Doyle, president and CEO of Methodist Hospitals, said as health care evolves, hospitals are getting outside of their four walls and into the community to help improve people’s health. He said the FAITH Food is Medicine program is a launchpad and will be an example to all communities of can happen with these types of partnerships.
“It’s access to this kind of produce and fresh food we know leads to better health,” Doyle said.
Frieda Graves, farm administrator, said this year the farm grew about 14,000 pounds of produce which was distributed through monthly community supported agriculture boxes, farmers market sales and to those in need. Graves said about 1,000 people purchased or received food from the farm.