Increasing access to healthy, nutritious food in Gary
When Indiana University Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) embarks on a relationship with a local community partner, it can take time before they discover a way to collaborate that is “mutually beneficial and reciprocal.”
“It is really just like building a friendship—you don't know what's going to happen down the road,” said Professor Ellen Szarleta, director of CURE. “But what you do know is that within your conversations, meetings, and one-day experiences . . . you are learning about one another and about the issues that concern you both.”
That is exactly how the relationship between CURE and FAITH Farms—a USDA-certified urban farm and orchard in the Emerson neighborhood of Gary—has grown over five years.
It all started with Curtis Whittaker, a Gary resident and IU Bloomington alumnus, who in 2011 became pastor of a local church. One of the many outreach programs of the church was FAITH Farms, a small community garden. But as the garden grew, so did Whittaker’s vision.
“God gave us a sign that was larger than just our church,” he said.
Partnering with four other local FAITH communities, FAITH Farms “grew a lot of food on its three raised beds, in between some blighted spaces,” Whittaker added. “It truly looked like a rose growing in a garbage field.”
Over the years, the farm has continued to expand, adding more raised beds and wind tunnel hoop houses that allow food to be grown year-round. It now has spaces for goats, chickens, and bees, with plans to create a food hub with a local grocery store and juice bar, as well as facilities to flash-freeze the farm’s fruits and vegetables.
Enter IU and IU Northwest
Over the past three years, IU and IU Northwest student interns have worked on FAITH Farms through capstone and community development classes offered by the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs (Bloomington), as well as students from IU Northwest. CURE also connected Whittaker with the Mobile Farm Stand Project, resulting in a solar-powered fresh food cart that FAITH Farms uses throughout the community.
IU Northwest student Mikey Kracht interned with FAITH Farms, where he performed tasks that ranged from cleaning up garden beds, gathering green matter and harvesting what was ready, to feeding the goats produce he had just picked.
Kracht also assisted with the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
“All subscribers received one milk crate of farm-to-table meals and recipe sheet,” he said. “As I was gathering the individual subscriber’s produce it felt like a dream to provide this level of service. This experience has further impassioned me to see the true potential of these local operations that help to combat food inaccessibility.”
A growing partnership
The relationship between IU Northwest and FAITH Farms continues to grow as the campus has been invited to be the program evaluator for the FAITH Food is Medicine program.
Through this program, physicians from Methodist Hospitals will offer “prescriptions” for a $20 box of locally grown food to individuals with health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease. The goal: to monitor whether the fresh food has any impact on their patient’s health. While the Food is Medicine program is in its formative stages, IU Northwest will soon involve students, providing them one more opportunity to be involved in this growing, community project.
When reflecting on his work with FAITH Farms, Kracht continues to be inspired.
“One farm cannot be expected to feed a whole city, but a garden can surely feed a block,” he said. “FAITH Farms has exemplified the power and potential of engaging with the local community to dedicate themselves to developing the operation; and now both the organization, its subscribers, and the greater community are reaping the benefits.”