Marlon English carefully harvests kale from a garden behind a row of storage units at 79th Street and Racine Avenue. He dunks the vegetable into a container of water before gently pulling the leaves apart — checking for bugs before adding it to one of the units where fresh produce lines the walls.
English, 30, is co-founder of the Stein Learning Garden at the Nurture Life and Community Hub at St. Sabina’s, 7834 S. Racine Ave. Produce from the garden, like the kale he picked, is placed in the newly opened Barbara’s Market, where residents can “shop” at no cost.
“We wanted to … give access to healthy food and give safe spaces to children,” said English, who noted the area is what’s called a “food desert” — it’s harder for residents to get fresh, healthy food.
In 2019, the USDA found a significant number of low-income residents of Auburn Gresham live more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.
An Aldi is half a mile from St. Sabina, and though “food and liquor” stores can be found throughout the neighborhood, many lack fresh produce.
Barbara’s Market, which officially opened Wednesday, is dedicated to Barbara Stein. She and her husband, Sheldon, were the main benefactors of the Stein Learning Garden. Barbara Stein died in January before construction was complete.
The learning garden was Stein’s idea, said Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina. She approached Pfleger in 2016 about creating a garden where young people and those from the neighborhood could directly benefit from the produce being grown.
“It was crazy because I know nothing about gardening, and obviously don’t eat real healthy, but she sold me on it,” Pfleger said. “And when I began to see the children from our school, our elders, come into the garden, I realized what a golden opportunity it was.”
The original garden remains open across the street from the church. The new market and community hub, next to the church, opened earlier this year. The produce at Barbara’s Market is grown on site or donated from other local farms, like Freight to Plate.
Most structures in the garden — the planters, turf, even the organic plants — were provided by Lowes.
“Part of our mission is to connect ourselves with the communities where our customers shop, and that’s our way of giving back, especially in underserved communities,” said Fred Stokes, Lowes’ senior vice president.
The Stein Learning Garden also provides on-site job training; four trainees have been hired by Lowes.
While plants like kale, Swiss chard, chives and green onions sprout from wooden boxes behind the four storage units, inside the units are a produce stand, a walk-in cooler, even a small art gallery.
Classes are held throughout the week in the garden. Pfleger said every child in the church’s youth facility participates in classes on healthy eating and how to grow things at home.
Amontae Campbell, education program manager for the learning garden, said students also learn composting and some aquaponics.
But one of the main goals, he added, is teaching students about food inequality and how it affects their community — and how growing their own gardens can help.
“I see the students come back and I have their parents ask me for a seed so they can grow at home,” Campbell said. “That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of it, how it resonates with the students and then they’re able to encourage their parents to do some of the things that we do here.”
The Community Hub at the garden also offers cooking demonstrations — roasted beet salad a few weeks ago and, on Wednesday, a group of kindergarteners learned to make watermelon smoothies.
Barbara’s Market is open Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Though produce is free, donations are encouraged.
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.