Most students at the University of Illinois are, in a sense, transplants hailing mostly from the Chicago suburbs. Because of the impermanence of college life, it can be easy to take for granted the place that is our home for a formative part of our lives. I’m not talking about the campus. Champaign-Urbana is more than just a setting for our Flagship University. It’s a community with a history, culture, people, and style all its own. I implore you to discover it while you have the chance.
I want to take the time to focus in on one CU original that deserves our recognition. The Prosperity Gardens, located at 302 North First Street in Champaign, is a local non-profit dedicated to the holistic health of the community. Making use of the ideas and practices of urban agriculture, The Prosperity Gardens has made use of vacant lots, transforming them into beds for thriving produce. These garden beds are the foundation upon which beautiful services are provided to the community.
A commitment to health is at the heart of the work done at The Prosperity Gardens. Champaign-Urbana runs the gamut as far as socio-economic status is concerned. Well to do residents have access to fresh produce at fresh food markets and grocers. These markets, however, are located near middle to upper-middle class neighborhoods. It’s a hard to swallow truth that those residents that struggle are geographically distant from fresh food markets, in food deserts, which make accessing whole fruits and vegetable an undue burden. To aggravate this issue, food deserts are often host to quickie marts that provide processed, sugar-laden foods to locals at incredibly low prices. The folks at The Prosperity Gardens believe, however, that fresh produce and healthy lifestyles are not luxuries to be commodified, which is why they are taking steps to ensure all are provided for.
A staple program at The Prosperity Gardens is the Mobile Market. Using a converted school bus as a mobile fresh food market has allowed for their transportation of fresh produce to food deserts. Once arrived, customers are able to purchase whole fruits and vegetable on a pay-what-you-will basis. Maximum inclusivity is the goal, which is why LINK, debit, credit, and cash are all accepted as payment.
I had the opportunity to interview Nicole Bridges, the Lead Coordinator at the Prosperity Gardens and she was able to share what motivates her work. For Nicole, great satisfaction comes from the work she does with local youths. “I work with youth ages 5-19, so I have had the opportunity to experience the growth of my students each summer,” she says. These kids tend to the gardens and receive an education in healthy eating, raising produce, and sustainability. What’s more is that they build a skill set and interest in green career opportunities.
Aside from this, I inquired about social injustices that exist in the food industry and how this affects her work. “Yes, social injustice exists everywhere in the food industry,” Nicole tells. She goes on “…if you look around even Champaign-Urbana the grocery stores are on the edges of town, restaurants are closer to more affluent neighborhoods, while the low-income neighborhoods only have access to corner stores and gas stations.” In saying this Nicole touches on an incredibly important issue, central to the mission of the Prosperity Gardens: ending the cycle of poverty.
We are a nation that addresses illness, for the most part, after it has already occurred by way of medication and other forms of treatment. We often take for granted, however, the importance and efficacy of preventative health care. One of the largest components of preventative health care is diet. Indeed, the US suffers from an obesity epidemic, which contributes to countless other health issues. Obesity ravages the financially insecure at a disproportionate rate due to inaccessibility to healthy food options. Health issues have a greater impact on the poor who already deal with compacted life stressors, which makes it that much harder to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. “We are trying to use our urban farm as a tool to break the cycle of poverty,” Nicole shares, “people are sick and they are going to continue to get sick at a staggering rate. We believe that increasing the opportunity for people to access healthy food options is the first step in this battle.”
The nobility of this work cannot be overstated. The weight of American politics can seem so heavy, especially in times like these. But, it does not do to fold within ourselves and ignore injustice and pain. The Prosperity Gardens is a group that is aware of the issues, both environmental and economic, and taking steps to address them at home through direct and meaningful action. Let them be an example to you.