When Veronica Kyle, the congregational outreach director for Faith in Place, and a community and environmental conservation activist, won a fellowship from Audubon’s ToyotaTogetherGreen program, she sunk some of the money into an initiative that allowed her organization to create a partnership with a Chicago church that built a farm allowing community residents to buy fresh, healthy produce right in their own neighborhood.

RH sat down with Kyle to discuss her work to help educate residents about better nutrition for better health and a more sustainable earth.

Please tell us more about this grant that you received from Audubon’s Toyota TogetherGreen Program.

The ToyotaTogetherGreen program is a partnership with the National Audubon Society. Since its launch in 2008, it has involved more than 400,000 people in bettering their communities and the planet. With this initiative, Toyota and Audubon  foster the growth of grassroots environmental leadership and  invest in innovative ways across the country that people are doing conservation. I was awarded a 2014 fellowship from among over 120 applicants; 40 of us were chosen as fellows for the year for projects that we had proposed or that we were already engaged in. Someone encouraged me to apply.

What was the process like?

It was such a rigorous process that I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Once you start the application process, it’s kind of hard to drop out midway because you’ve gone so far with soliciting references and writing the proposal. If you were awarded a fellowship, your project received $10,000. Half of it went directly for your time as a fellow with the project and the other half was to implement everything from your professional development to buying supplies that you would utilize with the project, or it could also be used to market and develop the project in your geographical area.

For what did you use the grant?

My fellowship was a seedling to develop a community-supported agricultural (CSA) project with the Vernon Park Church of God and Mother Carr’s Organic Farm. I had already started doing work with them. The grant made it a lot easier for us to market the CSA, put it on our website, get brochures, connect them with, in terms of professional development, other very successful similar projects in Illinois and join the CSA cooperative. This fellowship gave me the time to connect my organization to the proper resources and to continue to develop the farm.

Besides the green aspects of the work that you do, what other benefits to the community did you see happening because of this fellowship that you got?

One of the things that has happened is Faith in Place has a group of young people we call “Eco Ambassadors.” They usually come on in the summer and work with Faith in Place in a variety of initiatives. They come from various parts of the city. Many of these young people’s paths would never cross geographically, culturally, racially. As urban as Chicago is, it, unfortunately, also has its level of segregation. Because of [the segregation in] certain communities, these kids wouldn’t even know each other. But through the farm and initiatives like this, they work side by side picking collard greens, weeding, watering gardens and helping to harvest food. And we’ve also been able to engage volunteers of all ages to come out, help and spend some time on the farm

What has the learning experience been like for these volunteers?

Everybody loves to have healthy food, but most people don’t know how much work it takes to grow it. One of the things the fellowship has made possible is to bring volunteers to the farm and to get people engaged. Also, there have been some nutritional workshops, and there’ll be some more this growing season. Literally, right at the farm, right at the church site, people will see cooking demonstrations, and there’ll be workshops for the community. This farm is situated in Lynwood, Illinois. It’s considered an undeveloped subdivision, a suburb of Chicago. There are really nice homes there, but everybody has to get in a car to go to the grocery store, so in that area there’s a lack of food. I don’t like the term ‘food desert.’ I don’t like to name anybody’s space a ‘desert’ because I don’t think that’s a politically-correct term. But there are a lack of immediate food sources where the farm is situated. This farm, and the CSA, would allow people to walk right there on the block to the farm and buy their fresh produce at the farm.

What are some of the future goals that you hope to achieve with this initiative?

We’d like to see the farm function as full-fledged community supported agricultural project, where 300, 400, 500 shares a year are being purchased. And that means 300, 400, 500 families in and around that community in Chicago would be going there twice a month to get healthy, organic food. We’d like to see school buses and families come and tour and work the farm. They hope to get a program in the future where people—call it like a Pick and Pay—you know, you can come and pick your bushel of food, or pick your berries. There are bees on the farm as well, so don’t forget some honey. The goal was to see that farm become a functional, vital part of the community where people go for food and education; where they go to pick up their vegetables, just like they would go to the store to buy a gallon of milk. So, that kind of thing is what we’re hoping for. And another goal is to see the produce of that farm in restaurants, particularly restaurants where owners might want to have local food and don’t know that it’s so close or so accessible. To be able to do that would, I think, be an amazing feat for Vernon Park and the Mother Carr Farm. These farms are also a training ground. We use to grow food. But, somehow, the more educated we got the further away from the land we pulled. I was born in the ’50s. No one knew that most of the food that we would be eating now would not even be real food; it would be processed food that you can cook in two minutes. We have a whole generation in their 40s who do not know how to cook at all. We want to bring people back to some basics. If that happens; we can be healthier; we can lose weight; and our brains will function better. Then we’ll have third and fourth generations that would come behind us that would know what a real tomato tastes like. I ask kids where ketchup comes from and they say the store. I ask, where does the tomato come from? They say the store, not the ground. We have to take responsibility for that. Kids don’t see food growing; they don’t see farmers; they don’t know.