Black History Month: Changing food culture

Black Church Food Security Network volunteers working in a garden. Photo courtesy of Rev. Dr. Herber Brown III.

By Karyn Bigelow

For centuries, black churches have been places of worship and hope—as well as safe spaces to organize for human rights. Black churches represent freedom to the communities they serve. With this in mind, we start Black History Month by highlighting the community work of a leader who is working with his Baltimore, Md., congregation to give residents of his city freedom in the form of affordable, nutrient-rich foods.

Rev. Dr. Herber Brown III is one of the founders of The Black Church Food Security Network. Four years ago, he saw that people in his congregation were being admitted to the hospital for ailments related to poor diets. To address this problem, Brown reached out to local markets to form a partnership, but he found that their prices for fresh produce were too high. He came from these meetings with a feeling of “divine discontentment.” When he returned to his church, he noted an empty lot owned by the church and decided that they could use the land to plant fresh produce. This empty lot would later be named Maxine’s Garden, named after a dedicated gardener in the congregation. With one plot of land, the Black Church Food Security Network was born.

Brown describes the project as more than just urban farming; it is “a tangible expression of the Gospel.” This initiative is not intended to be a charity. Instead it is a tool to organize people. These gardens are just the beginning of a movement in Baltimore to organize, cultivate new lifestyles, and teach skills to people in underserved communities.

The network is changing food culture. Traditionally, black churches often serve Southern meals, also known as soul food, after worship each Sunday. Soul food is tasty, but not particularly healthy. Now churches are better able to incorporate healthy foods from their own gardens. Congregants feel pride when their food is served at the table. When children participate in the creation of their food, they are more willing to eat fruits and vegetables. And when they try new foods, they are able to influence their parents’ decisions when grocery shopping. The initiative will reap benefits for generations.

Since its inception, Maxine’s Garden has produced more than 900 pounds of produce! The network now includes multiple plots of land and has launched several farmers’ markets. Brown is also starting a Freedom School to teach children about agriculture, herbs, and sewing when they are not in regular school. In the future, the network will be partnering with Johns Hopkins University to analyze the effects of their work.

Although the Black Church Food Security Network is now limited to Baltimore, Brown has traveled to Chicago, Ill.; Dallas, Texas; and Gary, Ind., to educated other churches on how to start their own community gardens and farmer’s markets. The Black Church Food Security Network is led by African-Americans and primarily addressing the lack of accessibility of food to African Americans. However, all people are welcomed to join the work that they are doing just that.

Karyn Bigelow is a government relations assistant at Bread for the World.

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