Melvin Leach, a case worker for the Harvey Brooks Foundation of Joliet, is aware of the lack of grocery stores in the city’s predominately African American neighborhoods. But living in a food desert hits harder some days than others, he said. Like the time he had to go to four grocery stores to buy two cans of cranberry sauce. And it wasn’t even Thanksgiving. He finally found what he was looking for at a mom-and-pop store, not a major grocery chain.

“I got the last two cans,” Leach said. “That is a shame.”

It is, however, an example of the challenges African American residents on the east side have finding food, and specifically items that are aligned with their culture and preferences, Leach added. 

“We used to have several groceries in Joliet. In the past 20 years, all the grocery stores that served the community shut down and moved to the west side. Anyone from Lockport or east Joliet, you’re going to drive 30 minutes to get to a Walmart or a Jewel-Osco.”

The Harvey Brooks Foundation, founded in 1998 by Bishop Robert Sanders and members of the All Nations Church of God in Christ, operates a food pantry and several community gardens. A $100,000 Impact Grant Award from Northern Illinois Community Initiatives (NICI) will enable the foundation to develop a long-term funding plan to meet demand for more services, such as its “We Will Grow” Community Garden Initiative and after school programs serving up to 50 students in k-12. 

NICI Executive Director Tovah McCord, in her search for potential grantees, came upon a 2019 article about the community garden written by the foundation’s then-outreach coordinator Tempie Bates. McCord paid the foundation a visit and provided staffers with the structure to build an application to request grant funding. 

“Her assignment to us was find other corporations like Nicor Gas who have an extended arm to give money toward youth programming, nutrition, health . . . and have them join their money with what NICI is giving so we can grow our community garden to the next stage – a farmer’s market, or grocery store – that involves the youth and provides nutrition to solve food desert issues in this area,” said Leach.

McCord and NICI staffer Kendall Sprinkle went to Joliet in May to help with planting. The community gardens have produced great yields, Leach said. Each week, the foundation hands out fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, collard greens, jalapenos, bell peppers, squash, and okra. 

“The kids built a salad for the garden. Now, as we pick up our fall offerings, we will incorporate cooking and culinary. Our ultimate goal is to show our young people how to plant and grow their food and get it from the garden to their plate.”

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