In South Los Angeles, a Church Community Takes Food Sovereignty Into Its Own Hands | Civil Eats

In South Los Angeles, a Church Community Takes Food Sovereignty Into Its Own Hands

Parker and Williams are excited by the potential the new lot has and all the people they can feed with what they grow in it.

On a spring Wednesday at St. Mark United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, volunteers huddle around tables, organizing bulk boxes of pantry items for the Wednesday pick-up. Reverend Gary Bernard Williams and Labrenda Joyce Parker, one of his congregants, walk down a long hallway, past a nursery, a classroom-turned-supply-center, and the food pantry.

The pair walk briskly through the kitchen, out onto the driveway, and turn a corner. In an adjacent lot, they find themselves in the Prayer and Produce garden. Williams first envisioned this garden two years ago as a means to supplement the Wednesday food pantry donations. Planting boxes line a small section of land, bordering a spiral and cross. Whatever grows in the garden, Williams gives away.

In South Los Angeles, liquor stores outnumber grocery stores, according to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Residents face the lowest supermarket-to-person ratio of any Los Angeles region: For every 9,025 people, there is one store. And while in every neighborhood people suffer from diet-related illnesses, in South Los Angeles, people are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

Williams describes the uneven supply of healthy food as an apartheid system, where food is more accessible to affluent white communities than low-income communities of color. Residents have little or no access to fresh produce and healthful foods at the store and, instead, there is an excess of fast-food chains.

These are the facts that drive Williams’ fight for food justice. He is a leader in the city, using food sovereignty—the simple idea that all people should have the right to define their food systems—to address food insecurity that has existed for decades, if not centuries; the problem was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and sustained by economic uncertainty.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the church’s food pantry went from feeding 40 families every other week to more than 100 families every Wednesday. “You know that people are hungry,” Parker, who runs the garden, said. “But when you see 100 people line up every Wednesday, it resonates differently.”

Then, last year, Williams started noticing something else. In different pockets of Los Angeles, the ones where fast-food chains are abundant and tree coverage scarce, grocery stores were disappearing. First, the Food4Less in East Hollywood shuttered its doors for good. The Ralph’s in Pico-Roberston followed. And then another Ralph’s, just two miles from St. Mark’s, closed, leaving one name-brand supermarket—a different Ralph’s—within a 2-mile radius of the church.

Ralph’s parent company, the Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger, closed the supermarkets over the “hero pay” mandate that required businesses to pay employees an extra $5 an hour in response to pandemic workplace conditions. Two of the three stores were in South Los Angeles. The company claimed the three stores were performing poorly. Meanwhile, Kroger’s profits increased by more than 5 percent that year.

“We don’t have enough supermarkets in our communities, but every time you look around, there’s a new 7-Eleven,” Williams said. “I could probably count 10 7-Elevens within a five-mile radius of this church.”

It was the pandemic, however, that caused him to act. “I believe God gave me this vision of creating gardens,” he said.

So St. Mark’s partnered with Jennifer Oliver, a food scientist and ordained minister, to create a garden that could meet the community’s needs.

Now, Williams and Oliver are in the process of creating a model for other churches and religious organizations across the United States to copy. The first step was the church garden, where vegetables are used to supplement food pantry donations. The next step is turning a 9,500-square-foot piece of United Methodist Church land into an urban farm that will act as a new arm of the church.

“I see this as a sustainable way of redefining the church,” Williams said.

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The Churchyard Garden

Churches are at the hearts of many communities and are uniquely positioned to turn their land into space to grow food because they have the organizational power and a history of feeding those in need. Williams had the space on the church’s grounds to grow food, so he did.

Back in May, Parker pointed to the vestiges of last year’s planting: Lettuces and mint grew out of grow bags in the garden’s center. Meanwhile, along the perimeter, new planting had begun, with tomatoes climbing on wire frames next to carrots and spinach. Two years ago, soil testing revealed to Williams and his team that the ground was too toxic to plant in—it is riddled with the remnants of pesticides—so everything is planted instead in sacs made from natural materials. But, in one corner of the garden, new zucchini grows in dirt produced by the garden’s compost.

At the garden’s center, a spiral of lettuces and gravel leads to a cross. In addition to providing fresh produce, the garden was designed be a space for meditation.

Parker, a retired state employee, was inspired by Williams’ vision and began volunteering, learning as she went. Now, she runs the garden with one other volunteer, which involves weeding, planting, harvesting, and maintaining the space. One of the biggest challenges Williams has encountered is finding people willing to participate in the garden process, but Parker has taken on this ambitious role with vigor.

“My pastor has the ability to mobilize,” she said. “We knew that it was happening, but we didn’t know how to get together, what to do, and he did.”

The garden has been an experiment. Last year the zucchini was a real success, the baby eggplant, too; the okra didn’t grow as well.  “We may not have a lot, but whatever we have is appreciated,” Parker said.

This past summer, the summer squash grew in abundance. Williams intentionally planted foods that would grow easily. Still, there wasn’t enough for everyone who came to the food bank every Wednesday.

The goal of the garden is to balance out the hyper-processed foods that dominate the diets of many people in the area—especially the diets of people struggling to make ends meet. At food banks, for example, people primarily receive survival food, which is often pre-packaged, processed foods, and hardly ever fresh produce. This is what causes generational health disparities, Williams said.

As a former research scientist and adjunct professor at the Alabama A&M University, Oliver focused her work on food toxicology, studying the diseases prevalent among members of the Black community. “Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, colon cancer can be prevented by diet,” she said. The garden addresses the health disparities caused by inequitable access to nutritious foods.

Williams himself was prediabetic in the past, but he turned his condition around by changing his diet and working out. He wants to empower his community to address health disparities caused by centuries of systemic racism. “We need to reclaim our health and reclaim a space where we can grow our own food,” he said.

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Creating a Model

Oliver and Williams’ vision does not end at the church garden. The California Pacific Annual Conference, the regional body of the United Methodist Church, recently lent Williams a 9,500-square-foot piece of land to build a small urban farm and community gathering space as a kind of pilot program. “Our vision is that every church has space to have a garden to give away food,” Williams said.

The donated land at the corner of Normandie and 65th Place has good bones. An arbor, wrapped in unruly grapevines, frames the entrance, and planter boxes are arranged throughout the lot, but the previous stewards let the gardens go: Wild grasses have devoured the space. Williams plans to have the plot professionally cleaned in the next month and hopes that they can start planting the first crops at the beginning of the new year.

In Oliver’s plan, market farms are another element of the model. “Farm to Table and Beyond” is the flexible three-part model Oliver is designing with Williams that any church can follow. The first phase, which addresses “food access,” fills the demand with food banks and efforts like the creation of the community garden at St. Mark’s.

The next phase, the creation of a “food hub,” is designed to establish infrastructure to allow community members to participate in farming. At St. Mark’s, for example, they will train people to become producers in the gardens. St. Mark’s, is on its way to phase two.

The last phase, the pursuit of “food innovation,” is meant to help community members become food-centered entrepreneurs. The hope is to have classes on business and food handling.

Altogether, the plan is not just about access or business or education; it’s about approaching the food system with a holistic understanding of the disparities that exist and how to fight them. The ultimate goal is to lead congregations to become not just consumers but participants in food commerce, Oliver said.

Building a Community-Based Food System

Back in May, the sun beat down on the unshaded Prayer and Produce garden as five or six volunteers handed out food in the driveway. Over a hundred people had come to the church in search of food that day.

Small birds sat on the electrical lines overhead, chirping loudly. Airplanes intermittently drowned out the voices of the birds and volunteers.

While the garden is a step forward, Oliver believes more significant structural changes are needed. In Los Angeles, organizers and activists work tirelessly to mitigate food insecurity. But they don’t always see the whole picture, Oliver said.

“They’re doing things in pockets and not necessarily connecting the dots,” she said. “I’m a dot connector.”

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Williams knows that this is an immensely difficult project to undertake, but he’s dedicating the rest of his life to this role, he said. His leadership experience, mixed with Oliver’s food and organizing background, is the right combination. And they’re copying their plan from a tried and true blueprint: the model for creating a new church.

When she helped establish the garden at St. Mark’s, Oliver’s job was to help them set up a garden, but she didn’t do the work for them. Because no two communities are the same, the model she’s building is highly adaptable. These gardens won’t die the minute Oliver leaves because they are designed to survive through the community members.

“The big picture is to build a community-based food system that is capable of fostering financial and social equity,” she said.

For Parker, the St. Mark’s garden is a lot of work. The weeds grow in, and she pulls them out. Some plants thrive, and others don’t. But she has to keep going until fresh produce is easily accessible to the people who come to the church driveway searching for food.

“It shouldn’t be by zip codes or racial boundaries,” Parker said. “Fresh food, decent food should be something that crosses the boundaries,” she said. “Food, health—that’s something that everybody deserves.”

This article has been updated to correct Rev. Dr. Oliver’s past university affiliation.

Alice Gelber is a reporter, writer, videographer, editor, and developer. She has a Master of Science in Journalism from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and is passionate about reporting on culture, politics, and health. Read more >

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