WASHINGTON — Several years ago, Rev. Heber Brown III decided he needed to do more than pray.
The now 38-year-old pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, noticed more members of his congregation were suffering from diet-related illnesses. In Baltimore City, one in three residents is obese and 12 percent has Type 2 diabetes — two conditions that disproportionately affect black Americans.
Additionally, 34 percent of black residents in Baltimore live in food deserts (compared to 8 percent of white residents) and don’t have regular access to fresh, healthy and affordable foods.
So Brown turned to seeds, in addition to scripture, and started a garden on a 1,500-square-foot plot of land in front of the church. Today, that garden grows everything from summer squash to kale, and yields 1,100 pounds of produce — all to feed the community that meets weekly to worship.
“It was amazing,” said Brown, who, in addition to starting the garden, partnered with black farmers in the area to bring pop-up markets to the church after Sunday service.
“We saw attendance bump up in our worship, we saw a great energy … and it went so [well] here, that I wondered what would happen if we could spread it through other churches and create a network of churches that do the same thing.”
In 2015, Brown launched The Black Church Food Security Network — a grassroots initiative that empowers black churches to establish a sustainable food system to combat the systemic injustices and disparities that plague black Americans, who, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are sicker and poorer than non-black Americans.
The network currently operates at more than 10 congregations in Baltimore, most of which are located in the city’s “food priority areas.” There are also participating churches and farms in D.C., Virginia and North Carolina — and the list is growing.
“We have people contacting us from all over — different religions, different parts of the city. … The phone is always ringing, the emails are always coming in from churches saying, ‘Hey, we want in,’” said Brown, who added that he also receives interest from people of different races.
“They see it as important, they recognize that farmers markets are great, but there are gaps that farmers markets are not filling, and African American farmers, in particular, have unique struggles.”
His goal is to meet a need on both ends of the spectrum by supplying under-served communities with the food they need, while moving and marketing the food produced.