Greening South Los Angeles

Asparagus_produce-1 About eight years ago I went with a group of congregants in a previous church to partner in work for a week with a West Virginia congregation down near Kentucky in the "hollers". I don't eat meat, so I was eager to get to a grocery store and buy some lettuce and other vegetables to supplement the carb-heavy fare at the church.

Trolling the supermarket aisle, in which iceberg lettuce was the main vegetable offering, I realized that what many nutritionists tell us is true: part of the reason the poor suffer from so many health-related problems is that they either can't afford or have to travel way out of their neighborhoods to find healthy foods.

That's part of the reason why, as I wrote my colleagues, when I read this article about the produce market started by First African Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, I was moved. The other reason, of course, is that it's an article in which the religious motifs are woven throughout in a way that feels appropriate to the topic.

Teresa Watanabe begins with the story of Dorothy Carson, who is visiting the produce market after a health scare impelled her to change her lifestyle:

So there she was this weekend, scooping up fresh cucumbers, avocados, green beans, grapes and other produce she said she never would have dreamed of eating before. Carson said she now consumes about six daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Her weight and cholesterol levels are down.

"It's like an angel brought this to me," Carson, 58, said of the market. "It has really helped the community. . . . Now we are finally eating well."

Watanabe doesn't spell it out in capital letters, but it's clear that First African Methodist Episcopal Church is very influential in the local area. The fact that its nonprofit arm is launching programs in ten other churches reminds readers of the church's still central role in the African-American community. I'm curious as to why (lack of men in churches?) the initiatives target women and children.

FAME Assistance Corp. plans to expand healthful-foods education to 10 churches in the surrounding area under a three-year, $500,000 state grant targeting African American women and children, according to the nonprofit's president, Denise Hunter. Possible initiatives include church forums and workshops, support groups, a cookbook, bulletin boards providing nutritional information and success stories about people who had changed their diets and improved their health.

More than two-thirds of African Americans in California are overweight or obese, more than 40% have cardiovascular diseases, and their high blood pressure rates are among the highest in the world, according to the state Department of Health Services. African Americans are also more likely to have diabetes than whites of similar ages.

The statistics are disturbing. But Watanabe then offers readers these inspiring quotes, suggesting the ways in which faith weaves in and out of this urban narrative:

...So FAME hooked up with Coast Produce Co., a Los Angeles firm that had donated fruits and vegetables to the church's summer enrichment program for youth.

The firm is setting up a nonprofit arm, Fresh Hope, to take fresh produce to underserved communities and eventually supply local jobs, long a vision of its owner, John Dunn. He said his philanthropic impulses were in part fueled by his Christian faith, adding that finding a partner like FAME seemed divinely ordained.

"For us to find a counterpart with the same passion and belief as us -- I do believe there's a higher power that brought us together," Dunn said.

Rooted, as many are, in a history in which African-Americans suffered from the weight of prejudice and economic disadvantage, black churches have for centuries tried to look after the spiritual and physical health of their parishioners -- perhaps seeing them as one and the same. In recent years, this has meant forming nonprofit organizations to reach the larger community. This story is inspiring because it shows a community uniting around a shared vision -- a vision rooted in religious values, but big enough to embrace those who may not subscribe. And you have to love the quote from the Rev. John Hunter near the end. If the church outreach can covert the pastor, who knows what might happen next?

Asparagus stars thanks to Wikimedia Commmons

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