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Faith Fresh Frozen an oasis amid Gary food desert

The Rev. Curtis Whittaker has always been motivated by a vision to create access to healthy, fresh food in Gary where food deserts are the norm.

Through Faith Farms & Orchards located at 656 Carolina St., in Gary, he has been working to achieve that vision with the help of his farm administrator Frieda Graves for almost a decade.

On Thursday, that vision continued to grow as he cut the ribbon on the newest venture, Faith Fresh Frozen, at a property down the block from the anchor site surrounded by partners and supporters.

Representatives from U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan’s and U.S. Senator Todd Young’s office; State Rep. Regan Hatcher, D-Gary; Lake County Councilman Charlie Brown, D-Gary; Gary Mayor Eddie Melton; Gary Councilman Mark Spencer; Ami McReynolds with Feeding America; and Victor Garcia, CEO of the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, all joined Whittaker and his team to announce the launch

The program will further the Food is Medicine initiative by flash-freezing produce from the farm for distribution through the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana and local community.

Garcia said the partnership that created Faith Fresh Frozen was a rare opportunity to put a $750,000 investment from Feeding America’s Food Security Equity Impact fund to use in an impactful way.

“I’m really excited. We’re in the room right now that a year and a half ago did not look like this,” Garcia said. The vision for Faith Fresh Frozen was announced in September of 2022.

“Faith Farms has been a leader in food is medicine work as has the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana,” Garcia said. The food bank is not a charitable food organization, he said, but an organization that provides healthy nutritious foods for communities, especially those with food deserts.

“It’s projects like this that move the needle,” Garcia said.

He thanked collaborators including the Legacy Foundation and Feeding America for providing the financial means necessary to accomplish such a project. Legacy Foundation provided a $50,000 grant.

“We have some amazing leadership here,” Garcia said.

Ami Reynolds, who grew up in Gary, said Feeding America is committed to the community and the partnership. She said the work being done at Faith Farms through the Faith Fresh Frozen program is a “seed to other communities across the country” as they look at ways to best utilize the Food Security Impact funding.

Whittaker said it took a while before he and Garcia had a chance to meet despite so many who tried to connect the pair. When they finally did meet, he learned their visions regarding healthy food access and hunger were very similar which helped move the project forward. He said Garcia and the Food Bank stood behind him in bringing the program to fruition.

“They believed in us when no one else would,” Whitaker said. “They invested in the work.”

Whittaker said the ability to preserve the food grown at the farm is important. About 40% of the food grown on farms end up in a landfill. Some ways to reduce waste include feeding it to animals, composting, giving it away and finding ways to preserve it. Faith Farms has already been doing the first three; Now, with the Faith Fresh Frozen project, it can do more.

The Faith Fresh Frozen produce will be flash frozen and similar to any frozen vegetable in the grocery store. Around 20% of what is grown at the farm will be donated to the Food Bank. Whittaker said he will be working with other partners like Purdue University Northwest to provide vegetables for their food service operations.

The food that is not donated will help the nonprofit continue to grow and become self-sustaining.

Whittaker said the project is important because it not only provides fresh, healthy food in a community where it is needed, but it also will reduce blight and serve as a way to keep the benefits of development within the community where it is needed.

“Every person who had a hand in this project were black and brown people,” Whittaker said. “Every person who had a hand … looked like me. They looked like Victor. That is important.”

Whittaker said they wanted all the business and money associated with constructing the facility to stay within the community.

“If we want to see change happen. We got to do it,” Whittaker said. “We have the ability to repurpose and change our community, our neighborhoods …”

Plans now include converting the vacant house on the adjacent property into Faith Farms’ headquarters. Another $400,000 is needed for the work, he said. The facility will also include room for the organization’s food justice initiatives.

Gary Mayor Eddie Melton called the work done by Whittaker and the Faith Farms team a “blessing” in an area with a history of a lack of proximity to affordable, healthy food options. He pledged the city’s continued support to Faith Farms.

“The city of Gary will work hand in hand with them,” Melton said.

Gary Councilman Mark Spencer, D-At Large, said he grew up just down the street and walked past the site throughout his youth. He still maintains the family home in the neighborhood and was pleased to see a project like this address blight.

He called the investment in the community by Whittaker and the Faith Farms a catalyst for change.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com