‘From blight to light’

Gary pastor leads revival of urban neighborhood through community garden project
October 20, 2020

For the past seven years, Faith Farms in downtown Gary, Indiana, has been on a mission.

Led by Progressive Community Church senior pastor Curtis Whittaker, his wife, LaShawn, and a team of volunteers, the garden produces up to 15,000 pounds of food each year, providing organic produce to a blighted community in the middle of a food desert.

Pastor Curtis Whittaker began Faith Farms seven years ago as a way to address food insecurity and help reimagine his community in Gary. Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

Whittaker is on a quest to “change the blight to light” and reimagine the community in the Emerson area as an eco-friendly neighborhood.

“We endeavor to be a prototype in Gary of what you can do with blighted spaces in your community,” he said.

The average median household income in the Emerson area is $13,000 a year. On the block where the church is located, only one house is occupied. Immediately across the street is an abandoned school. Behind the church, only two houses have residents.

Whittaker decided to repurpose the abandoned land and use it for urban growing. He partnered with the city to demolish a home beside the church and use that land for a garden. The church community began with raised beds the first year, and each year thereafter, they have added something new, including chickens, an orchard, four hoop houses and bees.

The farm gives away 10% of its food to those in need and 20% to garden volunteers. That leaves 70% to sell to local farmers and to residents through community supported agriculture. The farm accepts all forms of payment, including EBT and WIC vouchers, to be as inclusive as possible and to give more people access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

Whittaker sees urban farming and food production as a source of economic and aesthetic development. He said the overwhelming reaction to Faith Farms has been positive.

Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

“We have seen an increase in black folk and brown folk wanting to buy products and purchase food from people that look like them, so we've seen an increase from that perspective,” he said. “But we've also seen an increase in the people who say, ‘Man, I got some greens from you all and they were best greens that I ever had. You know, I’m hooked on you all,’” he said.

A community necessity

Rebecca Koetz, the Lake County Purdue University Extension urban and home agriculture educator, said urban agriculture helps reduce food insecurity and also helps people learn where their food comes from.

“If you’re in a food desert, the only access to food may be a convenience store or a gas station,” she said. “A lot of people don't have access to fresh healthy produce, so it is definitely addressing that need. It also brings people together.”

One of Koetz’s roles is to work with individuals, schools and churches who are interested in starting their own gardens and farms.

“Urban agriculture is in a unique position where a lot of urban farms and community gardens are a community effort,” she said. “Those communities have a really big buy-in, where multiple people in a neighborhood might be working on growing seeds for them and their families, and it really brings people together in that way.”

Marie Pittman, the program manager for Lake County Eats Local, works with local farmers to bring fresh produce to food deserts in East Chicago and Gary. She identifies areas that don’t have a grocery store close by and partners with existing markets or establishes new ones.

Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

Faith Farms is a regular participant in Lake County Eats Local markets.

“A lot of people in the area use buses for transportation. They don’t have cars,” Pittman said. “The farmers market brings these opportunities for locally, fresh grown produce directly into their community.”

Pittman said she cannot say enough positive things about Faith Farms.

“I would describe them as a necessity for this community,” she said. “They are inspirational for this community. They are leaders in the community and what they do is good.”

Koetz said something unique about Faith Farms is how much it is achieving on a relatively small plot of land. It’s also become a hub for youth education.

“Because they're right in Gary, they have this opportunity to provide education for city youth,” Koetz said. “It’s really a great way to connect youth to where their food comes from at an early age and to develop career skills to make them marketable in any field, but particularly if they might want to go into agriculture.”

Pollinator park and ‘farmacy’

Besides the farm, Whittaker and Faith CDC are busy with several other projects. One is a pollinator park that Whittaker would like turn into an urban environmental learning center where people can learn about growing food.

Faith CDC partnered with a Purdue university landscape architecture class to design the park, which will be planted with trees, shrubs and flowers that attract pollinators. The plot is being cleared for construction, which will start once COVID restrictions have been lifted.

Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

Also, in development is a co-op produce store.

“What COVID has taught us is that there are farmers right now who produce food, and a number of them don't have a way to sell their food,” Whittaker said. “So this would be a way for us to be a resource or a source where they are able to bring their food.”

Whittaker said one of the most beneficial things he has learned through the process of beginning the farm is that food is medicine. That gave him the idea to make Faith Farms a “farmacy.”

The idea of a “farmacy” is that doctors write prescriptions for food as medicine for their patients. A few farmacies already exist in Indiana.

“We've already reached out to Methodist hospital here in Gary and others who agree that it’s time to shift the conversation around not only food as life, but also food as medicine,” Whittaker said. “The way that we eat can change the health outcome of individuals in our predominantly African-American community, and that's been important to us.”

Whittaker also wants to support black farmers, who traditionally have been excluded from conversations around food, despite a rich agricultural history.

Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

“There have been restrictions on people of color, particularly African-American, gaining access to land and being able to grow the food that we want to grow,” Whittaker said.

“Because if there is no access, nothing can come forth, and the yoke of bondage will continue to keep people of color from being all that they are all destined to be.”

Youth growing program

Another Faith CDC goal is to start an urban young people's growing program.

The plan is to sponsor five youths in an online urban agriculture program through the University of Illinois to become master gardeners. Eventually, up to 30 young people would complete the program, work on the farm and teach others how to grow their own food.

The church also plans to reach out to hospitals, schools and restaurants to offer a diverse system of support, such as involving students in 4H and teaching people not just to produce food but to sell it.

Finally, Faith CDC has a vision for reimagining senior living by building a tiny-home village in Gary with 300 homes, each 400 feet square.

“When you think of senior housing, typically you think of a high-rise building,” Whittaker said. “If you’re HUD or Indiana housing community development, why don’t you give a different and innovative model and invest those dollars into a home that a person can then go and sit on their front porch?”

Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

Each home would have back and front yards that could be used for gardening. The residents then could hold their own local farmers market and earn income from their produce.

The vision ties into Faith CDC’s mission to create an eco-friendly community that would include initiatives such as solar panels on the church roof.

“We're in a blighted community with so much opportunity to be innovative in our approach and our thinking, and as the Bible tells us, ‘Where there is no vision, people perish,’” said Whittaker.

He sees the church’s programs as a catalyst to help community members fulfill the potential of the Emerson area.

“I believe as people see blight, internally, unconsciously, they become what they see,” he said. “If they see blight, they become blighted within. They begin to do blighted things and have blighted values.”

Whittaker’s goal is to “change the blight to light.”

Photo courtesy of Faith CDC

“That light is for what we believe we're doing, and that’s sharing and showing the love of Jesus Christ in our community,” he said. “If we are what Jesus said, we become the light of the world, but also the light of this neighborhood.”

To learn about volunteering at Faith Farms, please go to pccgary.org/contact-us.

To learn about how to start an urban garden or find grant information about urban gardening in the Lake County area, contact Rebecca Koetz at 219-755-3240.

‘From blight to light’