Food justice is a phrase often used when there is a lack of access to affordable and healthy food. While it’s unclear when the term was first used, Robert Nevel, founder and director of the Food Justice and Sustainability Program at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, believes theirs might be one of the earliest, if not the first, food justice program. Eleven years later, the organization is still growing more than food.
In honor of Earth Month this April, I’ll be featuring organizations committed to helping provide access to healthy and affordable food to those in need while taking our earth’s resources into consideration. First in our series is KAM Isaiah Israel.
One of the reasons the Food Justice and Sustainability Program began in 2009 at KAM Isaiah Israel was to address the basic human need and right to nourishing, wholesome food, clean air and water, and healthy soil through urban farming. With the help of a number of committed volunteers and one paid farm manager, they’ve transformed lawns and marginal land at schools and houses of worship into micro-farms that grow fruits and vegetables.
“We grow food for donation and I think [we’re] one of the largest grower-donors of food in Chicago,” shares Nevel. “To date, we’ve delivered over 34,000 pounds of organic produce. We deliver that food to hot meal programs and [Chicago Housing Authority] Senior Living facilities.”
Growing food isn’t the organization’s only mission. In fact, it’s just a piece of a much larger goal.
“In addition to growing food, we install food forest and pollinator walls,” Nevel adds. “We do a tree giveaway every autumn, we run a free farm and food forest school.” Nevel keeps going and going. The fact that this organization runs primarily on volunteers and accomplishes so much is pretty remarkable.
The organization also hosts one of the largest urban agriculture weekends and Food Justice weekends, in the metropolitan area in mid-January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. every year. For the past five years, the theme of the weekend has been on climate change. This year, the theme was climate change and where we live. Past years focused on climate change and water, climate change and city parks, climate change and civil rights, for example.
“We’ve been tying Food Justice and the Food Movement and Eco-Justice and climate change together for years,” Nevel notes.
It’s Not Just About Growing Food For Those in Need
“We grow food to demonstrate how to turn unproductive land into productive land as an environmental initiative,” adds Nevel. That started by taking marginal land from the synagogue across from President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s house and cultivating every bit of arable land there. Then they did the same thing at Kenwood United Church of Christ with Delta Farm at Saint Paul and the Redeemer. They installed food forests at KAM and Revis Elementary School. These micro-farms are farmed as if they are one but they are spread out within a mile radius of each other and the food is delivered within a mile of where it’s growing.
Consider the 34,000 pounds they’ve donated so far – all of which has been grown within a mile radius of where it was delivered and consider the environmental impact of not having 34,000 pounds of food traveling on trucks across the state, not to mention the nutritional impact of having fresh food to eat almost from the minute it’s harvested.
An architect by profession, Nevel started this program as a member of the KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation as a way of rethinking the urban land use model. More than 500 people have been involved with this program, many of whom began since its inception. The program welcomes anyone interested in volunteering, members and non-members, interfaith, young and old, to learn more about the program by visiting their website and reaching out.