October 19, 2021

Garden feeds underserved community members

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Heartland Community College’s principles of regenerative agriculture class went to the heart of the matter recently when students visited Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest.

The garden, located on Bloomington’s west side, is a collaborative organization that provides over 1,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to the community during the season. The focus is to provide healthy, nutritional food to underserved community members.

The class is part of Heartland’s Agricultural, Food and Natural Resources associate degree program that started this school year.

“Part of our definition of what regenerative agriculture is includes making sure that the food we do produce is accessible to everyone in the community,” said instructor Dave Bishop.

“It’s rather strange to think in this country — we’re the richest country on earth; we produce copious quantities of food — we waste 40% of the food that we produce. We have all kinds of federal and state programs, SNAP, WIC, food banks, we have all kinds of assistance programs. Why is anyone hungry or food insecure?

“That just doesn’t seem to make any sense. So, maybe there is more to it. Maybe throwing money at the problem isn’t really fixing it. If that’s the case, what do we need to do? And Caleb (Phillips) has been working on that and has some research on that very question.”

Fresh Food

Phillips is Sunnyside Community Garden and Food Forest manager/director and led the tour. He is a church leader with Living Stone Communities on the west side of Bloomington.

Living Stone Communities is an outreach ministry of the East White Oak Bible Church. Phillips is also interim minister at Arrowsmith Christian Church.

“Part of our definition of what regenerative agriculture is includes making sure that the food we do produce is accessible to everyone in the community.”

—  Dave Bishop, instructor, Heartland Community College

The original mission of Sunnyside when it began in 2016 was to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for residents on Bloomington’s west side.

“That hasn’t necessarily drifted or changed. Most of our food is servicing Home Sweet Home Ministries, Beacon of Hope food pantry, and we also help St. Mary’s soup kitchen which serves on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We are able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables through those partners,” Phillips said.

“We don’t usually just sort of do a random drop-off. We want to build relationships with those places and we really want to understand what they need. So, part of our planting plan for this season was we grew more collards and we grew more head lettuce because Home Sweet Home co-op said that’s what their members can’t get and so we said we’re going to grow those things. We don’t want to grow more tomatoes for you if you’re already inundated with tomatoes. So, our tomatoes don’t normally go to them; they go to another place.

“We try to do research, in a sense, with our customers to understand what they want and then our growing plan is based on what they want and need.”

The garden is maintained by three volunteer teams assigned to Tuesday mornings, Wednesday evenings or Sunday evenings.

“We have trained their leaders on how to do different things. All of our beds are numbered and places have names and so we can use a Google document to tell them what we’re going to do this week or this day and ask if they can get these things done. So, if I can be here, great, but if I can’t be here they can handle things,” Phillips said.

“Some of those volunteers come from the west side of Bloomington. Some live outside of Bloomington, but they want to help out.”

Research

Phillips has done extensive research on local foods and food insecurity and discussed that with the Heartland students visiting the site.

“Part of the issue that I addressed with class is my research is showing that kids in our neighborhood are getting plenty of calories — some of them too many. But a lot of their food is nutrient poor, not nutrient dense food,” he said.

“My research on SNAP benefits, food banks and other places is showing that a lot of the decisions to not buy nutrient dense food come from either a lack of knowledge of how to prepare that food to make it tasty because it’s hard to make things tastier than potato chips.

“So, either, one, there’s a lack of information on how do I actually make this food taste good, but there’s also a certain lack of understanding.”

Healthier Option

Phillips said he’s not a medical doctor and “hates to disagree with medical doctors.”

“But most people I’ve researched in the neighborhood that has diabetes who I can say to ‘you can come get food for free or you can help me harvest it or you can volunteer and then I’ll give you things out of the garden,’ they have said they don’t want to eat that food and would rather eat the food they’re already eating. The food their already eating is high in complex carbohydrates, added sugars and various other things that are making their diabetes even worse.

“I’ll ask why, and they’ll make a statement that’s very similar to ‘but my doctor tells me all I have to do is take this pill and it’ll help solve the problem.” And so the idea of doing yoga, staying hydrated, going on walks, working in the garden, being active, eating ‘healthier,’ making 80% of our calories coming from fruits and vegetables, maybe choosing local options, things like that, those are not on the radar as they’re discussing things with me.

“They’re saying, ‘my doctor is not bringing up the idea of how to eat healthier, how to balance my diet, how to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. All they’re talking about is taking these meds.’

“So, a lot of what I’m finding is I can provide a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, but if you don’t know how to prepare them, then you’re kind of sunk.

“The other part is if I can’t convince you to take it because salads are gross and ‘I’d rather have a pizza and my doctor says that a pizza with a pill is the same as a salad, then why wouldn’t I choose the pizza?’ Those are the two major streams of information issues that I run into out here.”

He added that it’s also important on the education side to teach students food preparation, consuming healthy food and having a healthy diet.

“I’m all about kids need to be able to do math and they need to be able to read at grade level. I’m a huge proponent of those things, but we’re not passing along these ancient skills of fermenting food, making our own bread, producing our own food. We’re not passing those things along and if we don’t pass those things along you’re going to lose that information and that wisdom,” he said.

Jobs

A focus going forward will be creating first-time jobs for teens in the community.

“There are no job opportunities for kids in our neighborhood and we want to be a place where we offer really good first-time jobs for kids. This last summer, we had two apprentices. We got connected with them through the Boys and Girls Club. They need to be located within a certain mile radius and somehow connected with the neighborhood,” Phillips said.

“We want to go from two to six next summer or potentially from two to eight and we want all of their wages and the program to be taken care of by wholesale. We really want to create a program where kids can come back year after year and they can work here, they can have a great first job, they can get paid for it, they can start to learn how to show up on time and how to work hard and take responsibility, how to take criticism and feedback and work with all of those things.”

Heartland Bank has partnered with the program to work with the teens by providing financial information and classes on financial literacy.

Life Lessons

Phillips also has a group of local pastors meet weekly with the young workers for breakfast for another life lesson.

“It doesn’t make a difference to me, but some of them are white and some of them are black, and the group would have breakfast with the two workers and me on Thursday mornings. A group of men, who don’t look like each other, don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but who can get together, eat together, talk together and pray together and check in with one another. The young workers can start to better understand if you want to decrease the temperature in the room, if you want to have less hostility you have to get to know people, you have to build relationships in your community,” he said.

“So, we wanted to talk to them about how to build healthy relationships and how to create an open and honest culture where people can get together and talk and relax and not everything becomes a shouting match that we sadly sometimes see. A lot of the focus the next couple of years is trying to develop that to help this move forward.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor