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From Farm to Food Desert

Black farmers need customers. Black Chicagoans need healthy food. Connecting them isn't as easy as it sounds.



The sun beat down on the vegetable stand on 115th Street, across from St. John Missionary Baptist Church in far south Roseland. Fresh cantaloupes, yams, and tomatoes baked in the 90-degree heat. Three volunteers, organized by church leader Donnell Williams, waited patiently for customers behind the table, sipping ice water. Sweat beaded on Williams's forehead, but a smile never left his face. "It's a small start, but you've got to start somewhere," said Williams, 31. One of his helpers—actually, his mom—retreated to the car to listen to Rainbow/PUSH in the comfort of the air-conditioning.

This spring Williams signed up his church with the black farmers' market program run by Reverend Al Sampson of Fernwood United Methodist Church, on 101st Street in Roseland. Sampson's grand idea is to bring soul food grown by black people to black people in Chicago. Much of it comes from farm cooperatives in Arkansas and Mississippi, and a smaller amount from the African-American farming community of Hopkins Park in Kankakee County, Illinois.

I stood with Williams for 90 minutes, in which time only two customers showed up. One of them was a close friend who picked up $5 worth of vegetables. The shortage of shoppers wasn't because of stiff competition: Roseland is frequently cited as one of the city's most notorious "food deserts." Such places are not strictly without food—chips, candy, and greasy fried food are abundant. But the nearest supermarket to St. John is almost three miles away.

"We have fast-food places that's detrimental to our health," said Beverly Williams, Donnell's mother. "But in this particular neighborhood, I don't think there's any fresh market at all. It's difficult because it's so easy to get the fast food."

Reverend Sampson has been organizing farmers' markets across the south side for 32 years, since long before the term food desert entered the vernacular. He started in 1978 with just one, at Fernwood United Methodist, a few years after he took over as pastor, and he's managed about five a year since then. In April, Sampson announced he was making a much bigger push. His goal: 20 markets, one for each of the 20 traditionally black wards of Chicago. "It will be the largest mobilization of black farmers' food in the history of this town," Sampson told a gathering of community organizers.

While the southern farmers make up the backbone of Sampson's operation, the farming community in Hopkins Park holds a special place in his heart. He first met these farmers while working for Martin Luther King out of Chicago in 1966. King sent him to Hopkins Park to establish a Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter for Kankakee County, led by local minister A. Austin Timms.

Sampson began his civil rights work in 1959 as a student at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, preaching to nearby farming families. "Black farmers—they fed us when no one else did," Sampson says. "And they have never been honored." In 1960, not long after Greensboro's famous Woolworth sit-ins, he and another black student sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in a McCrory-McLellan store in Raleigh, refused to leave, and were arrested. They had no money for bail, but the judge allowed a black farmer to put up his land title to get them out of jail. Sampson says he figures the judge hoped they'd skip north so the county could keep the farmer's land. The two students were later found guilty of trespassing in the state supreme court, but more sit-ins and other demonstrations were increasing pressure on stores. In October of that year, McCrory-McLellan, Woolworth, and other department stores integrated their lunch counters.

Most black farmers today produce fruits and vegetables in small amounts and thus get overlooked by supermarkets, which deal in high volume. "My farmers are not in the agriculture economy," Sampson says.

Meanwhile in Chicago, black consumers in low-income neighborhoods have trouble getting healthy food at reasonable prices. A 2009 study by the Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group found that 610,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts; 480,000 of them are black. A 2002 study by the UCLA School of Medicine found that fruit and vegetable consumption—which is associated with lower rates of heart disease, colon and stomach cancers, and diabetes—goes up along with income.

"For years, black folk have been going down south and getting the vegetables from family," Sampson says. "Let's produce a marriage between black farmers down south and the black consumers up north. As a minister, there's some weddings I don't have to charge."

One morning in early June, Sampson picks me up at the McDonald's at 95th and Lafayette for a day trip to Kankakee County. He wears a red faux-leather Obama cap and drives an older model blue Mercedes. He's quick with the horn, honking at more timid drivers as he turns south onto Halsted, then cuts the corner through a gas station lot to avoid a light en route to I-57. The gritty landscape of the south side soon melts into the south suburbs and then the green corn and soybean fields of Will and Kankakee counties.

At Kankakee, he drives east on Route 17 towards Hopkins Park. The village, as well as surrounding Pembroke Township, is served only by county roads, many of which until recently were still dirt. We're only an hour from Chicago, but the place looks like something out of the Mississippi Delta.

Past a sign that reads hopkins park, population 800, we pass houses that are little more than low-slung shacks in need of repair. Each has a propane gas tank behind it—natural gas was never extended from Kankakee. Hopkins Park has a small mom-and-pop grocery, but the only chain store is a Citgo gas station.

Reverend Al Sampson

We pass a sign for the A. Austin Timms Elk Lodge. The lodge is gone; only the weathered sign remains.

The single-story city hall in Hopkins Park sits on a small hill at the village's central intersection. As we walk in, Sampson gets a bear hug from a burly man in a blue turtleneck. "Brother John Thurman!" Sampson greets him, then says to me, "He's passing on the seeds of his farm to his sons and daughters." Thurman, 49, has nine children, most of whom still live in the county and help him with his vegetable farm each summer. He inherited five acres from his father and grew the farm to 29 tillable acres.

Thurman's father was born in 1902 and moved to Kankakee County from Mississippi in the 1940s. "He wanted a place to come that was different than the south, a place where he could hold his head up," Thurman says. "He was in the era where you got 40 acres and a mule, but he never got his." After first checking out Chicago, he decided to put down roots in Pembroke Township, in what was already an established African-American farming community.

Former slaves had settled eastern Kankakee County in the 1860s. Runaway slave Joseph "Pap" Tetter and his large family founded the village of Hopkins Park on 42 acres that would be subdivided and sold, with revenues used to support the Underground Railroad. Further waves of black farmers came during the Great Migration and especially the Great Depression. Even in the 1930s, land was still available for black farmers to settle because much of Pembroke Township's soil was seen as marginal, according to documents from the Kankakee County Museum.

As of 2007, Illinois had 77,000 farms but only 171 black farmers. In Hopkins Park, home to dozens of those farmers, agriculture remains the sole industry. Governor George Ryan promised a prison for Pembroke in 2002, which would have brought natural gas, jobs, and private development. But Rod Blagojevich killed that project, even as he promised public investment to bring Hopkins Park out of the 19th century. Other than more paved roads, Mayor Sam Payton says there weren't many changes that had a lasting impact. When a tornado blew through town this June, the warning sirens the state had promised still weren't in place. "We're the forgotten city," Payton says.

Neither Thurman nor the other half dozen or so farmers in the cooperative he runs, the Pembroke Farming Family, uses pesticides or herbicides. He also rotates his crops yearly, following the advice of George Washington Carver. He considers his organic standards higher than the U.S. Department of Agriculture's, which do not require crop rotation. "Before USDA had a standard, we had ours," Thurman said. "They learned the hard way in the south that you burn the ground out if you grow the same crop every year. You want the ground to have nutritional value."

I ask Sampson to take me out to one of the farms. We leave city hall and he drives me to Pop Ivy's place—east of town, past a shuttered Kwik-Mart. We pass a pair of hitchhikers thumbing beside the road, but Sampson doesn't pick them up. "I should get the Nobel Prize for driving you around," he says.

  • adapted from “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” 2006, with permission of Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group

Ivy's farm is smaller than Thurman's, just ten acres behind his ranch house. Born in southern Missouri, he worked in Chicago for a while before finding Pembroke Township. "I thought the only way to get back to the farmer was to go down south," Ivy says. "This looked like what I grew up in."

Ivy, who's wiry with light gray eyes in a dark-skinned face, wears the standard farmer's uniform: ball cap, blue jeans, and long-sleeved plaid shirt. He's never been a full-time farmer; today he supplements his farm income with social security, but before he retired he drove a bus for the Pembroke school district and ran a home remodeling business to make ends meet. "I know work won't hurt you, because that's all I know," Ivy says. When his sons were still at home, he grew five acres of watermelon at the back of his lot, but that land now lies fallow.

His front five acres are freshly tilled, though, revealing a black, sandy loam. Unlike Thurman, Ivy does not farm strictly organic, but he can't always afford pesticides and this year didn't spray anything. Kale, collards, and cabbage stick up out of the dirt, along with red and white onions. "The onions I grow are 100 percent natural," he says. "All I have to do is put them in the ground." His best sellers are butter beans and okra—which also require the most labor to plant and pick. In a smaller field on the border of his property, a line of silver maples shades his crops. Ivy points to rows of a small spindly plant with featherlike compound leaves, which he says bear better produce than what's found in the supermarket. "These are sweet peas," he says. "In the south, they're real popular. The taste is night and day."

The South Michigan number 34 bus passes all the way through Roseland—seven miles from 95th Street to Altgeld Gardens—without passing a single supermarket. In fact, there are no large grocery stores in the whole neighborhood. Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, who represents most of the area, recently won approval for a Walmart in Pullman, but at 111th and the Bishop Ford freeway, that store will be about a mile from the central Roseland strip. Beale also announced a year ago that a long-empty lot at 115th and Michigan, a stone's throw from Donnell Williams's market site, would become home to an Aldi, but nothing's happened at that site since. Beale didn't return calls for this story.

Most of Sampson's markets are set up outside churches. "That's a great concept," says Joel Gruver, a professor of agriculture at Western Illinois University. "If the church has a large enough congregation, that's quite a few ready customers."

Farmers' markets often struggle with a chicken-egg problem: Consumers want a market with a wide variety of farmers. But farmers are reluctant to go to a market without a guarantee that customers will actually show up. This is easy in a well-established market with an affluent consumer base like the Green City Market, but in low- or moderate-income communities, Gruver says, markets often limp by with only a few hundred dollars in sales. "It's a challenge for these farmers to come to the market when they might not sell most of their vegetables," he said. "One of the difficult problems with working with produce is that it's so perishable. As soon as it's been picked, it's composting, it's deteriorating. That's very different than corn and soybeans, especially in the height of summer."

But Sampson says his farmers, shut out from more conventional means to sell their vegetables, gladly make the trek to Chicago. Church volunteers staff the stands each Saturday. Sampson provides the churches with promotional flyers, but it's up to each site to post the flyers and advertise, which he says explains why some markets do better than others. Several of the Pembroke farmers who come to Sampson's market on Saturdays also set up shop at Seaway Bank in Chatham on Wednesdays. "I make them register . . . but there is no fee," said bank spokeswoman Claudette Harris. She said Seaway gets free special-event permits from the city at the start of the season. Sampson doesn't bother, since the markets are part of his ministry. "This is church business," he said. "It has nothing to do with city politics."

But even when they're eager, sometimes farmers don't make it to market. Sweet green peas from Ivy's farm didn't show up at the 11 stands Sampson opened on July 10 (the first weekend), and neither did any other produce from Hopkins Park. The reverend had already pushed back the markets two weeks from his planned start date of June 26, but the Pembroke farmers still couldn't get out of their fields: the rains of May and June had left them too wet. "I'm really at the mercy of the weather," Sampson says.

The first weekend's markets sold Arkansas melons and vegetables, but the Arkansas farmers haven't been making it up every weekend, either. When they don't, like this past weekend, Sampson may only be able to coordinate food for three or four small markets. He's yet to hit the goal of 20 markets he'd hoped for this spring, but on the weekend of August 21 he says he'll have 14, hooking up with more churches than ever before. There are eight regular markets every weekend (see sidebar), though some get canceled if there aren't enough vegetables to go around.

Donnell Williams told me after his market closed at St. John that he was able to sell most of his muskmelons, but only a few of the tomatoes. Not many people went for the two-pound bags of crowder peas for $8. Still, Williams said he'd be back two weeks later with another market. "We're committed to it," Williams said. "I like to be a man of my word."

And sometimes everything works out. A few weeks ago, Sampson says, the Sunday market at Sweet Holy Spirit Church managed to sell everything that was left over from Saturday's markets.

Incoming vegetables are unloaded in the back yard of the "International Headquarters of the George Washington Carver F.A.R.M.S."—what Sampson calls his farmers' market operation. (The acronym stands for Farmers Agriculture Resource Management Systems). Except for a small sign, it's an otherwise nondescript a two-story house across 101st Street from Fernwood United Methodist.

"We started yesterday at eight o'clock," said Ester Doolittle, a farmer from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. "We go from farm to farm picking up vegetables." Doolittle and his friend Julius Wylie drove up—nearly 700 miles, crossing through Missouri and up Illinois the long way—in a large van and a Chevy pickup. The watermelons are huge, up to 35 pounds. They also had muskmelons, including cantaloupes, boxes and boxes of yams, bell peppers, yellow squash, and zucchini, and a lot of big ripe tomatoes.

Volunteers from 11 churches and other organizations arrived by 7 AM to distribute the produce across the south side, as far north as Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and Indiana in Bronzeville. Doolittle walked around in a straw hat, directing which vegetables went to which group. Sampson recruited Doolittle years ago while lecturing at the historically black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Doolittle trusted Sampson, and so agreed to come north without the promise of money up front. "There are no guarantees when you're a farmer. You plant your seeds in the ground, and hope for the best," Doolittle said. And with Sampson, the Arkansas farmers can sell directly to the consumer. "It's always better if you can cut out the middleman."

By 9 AM cars were lined up and waiting for a market to open at Roseland CeaseFire, an antiviolence organization on 111th Street in Morgan Park. This market was bustling, in stark contrast to the scene two miles away at St. John. CeaseFire had not run a market before, but flyers had been posted for several blocks around Morgan Park on the east side of I-57. The stand was manned by youth who CeaseFire employs through Governor Pat Quinn's Put Illinois to Work program.

"I knew they was gonna have some soul food," said shopper Detra Morris, knocking on watermelons. "I'm waiting on the greens and corn. I might get me some squash and tomatoes." She looked over the squash but admitted to another customer that she wasn't sure how to cook them. Sauteed with onions and garlic, a little olive oil, and black pepper, the other woman said. Later, one of the CeaseFire workers, Robert Robinson, asked me how zucchini tasted. He'd never had any.   

Unless otherwise noted, all farmers' markets are held Saturdays from 9 AM to 3 PM through October 20. Additional markets may be held some weekends, and the regular ones listed below are subject to cancellation. To check on the prospects for a particular weekend, call 773-881-0800.

Fernwood United Methodist Church 10057 S. Wallace, 773-445-7125

Pullman Presbyterian Church 550 E. 103rd, 773-928-9568

Roseland Ceasefire 1340 W. 111th, 773-238-5599

St. John Missionary Baptist Church 211 E. 115th, 773-568-7589

St. Mark United Methodist Church 8441 S. St. Lawrence, 773-846-2992

Sweet Holy Spirit Church 8621 S. South Chicago, 773-721-6178, Sun 7 AM-2 PM

Gorham United Methodist Church 5600 S. Indiana, 773-324-8657

Healthcare Consortium of Illinois 1350 E. Sibley, Suite 303, Dolton, 708-841-9515, Fri 10 AM-4 PM, Sat 9 AM-3 PM.


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