An urban farmer helps her neighbors in East St. Louis

(This show was first released to a national audience as part of a series titled On the Ground with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.)

There are fewer than five houses on Monroe Avenue. Vacant lots are taking up the beginning of the street, covered in tall grass that looks like it hasn’t been cut in years. The houses are at the end and Kamina Loveless lives in the first on the block.

The calm is good from Loveless, who has been using the huge empty land in her backyard for the garden for 12 years. It provides fresh food to people in the East St. Louis community, a food wasteland where nearly 40% of the population live below the federal poverty line.

“It could go back 10 to 15 years,” Loveless, an East St. Louis native, said of the city’s lack of food. That’s why she wanted to connect people with fresh food. “The only thing around the corner is chicken and fries.”

East St. Louis is a small town on the banks of the Mississippi in the east metropolitan area of ​​southern Illinois. The city of nearly 26,000 residents, over 96% of whom are black, is just 15 miles from Ferguson, Missouri, which made national headlines after the police murder of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014.

The people that make up this city are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as East St. Louis is not only a food wasteland, but it also lacks a hospital. The closest, Touchette Regional Hospital, is in nearby Centerville. According to a Belleville News-Democrat analysis of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s March 1 data, seven of the 10 zip codes with the highest per capita coronavirus cases in St. Clair County, which includes East St. Louis, have a majority black population until June 1st.

With these challenging conditions in mind, East St. Louis is shaped by residents who seek to create a better reality for their city, aptly referred to as the “City of Champions.” Loveless is one of them.

Loveless started her garden in 2008 after discovering a greenhouse in Jones Park, a three-minute drive from her home. She founded Gardens Devone Network Food to help people in the community learn about gardening. It’s the only one of its kind in East St. Louis.

“I’m still here today to grow it in a small section next to the fence,” said Loveless, who now works full time in the city garden after losing her job. Your goal is to ensure that people know more about how their own food resources are created. “Today I am teaching people to do this themselves, not just to say that I am teaching them, but I want them to see what a sustainable lifestyle is like.”

With her mother, Loveless grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in their garden, although pumpkin is the most popular because it’s the easiest to grow. She is working on building a hen house for the cattle.

“The work we do is important, especially teaching kids how to garden and take advantage of the land they have,” said Betty Loveless, Kamina’s retired mother. “The blessed times have changed and everything is technology based, but there will be a time when we will have to rely more on land and gardening.”

Your daughter is determined to follow in the footsteps of her late father, who raised her family on a farm in nearby Brooklyn, Illinois. He died of cancer in 2015.

“I actually had the opportunity to experience firsthand what urban agriculture is and what a sustainable lifestyle is,” said Loveless. “I can remember voluntarily going to the pig farm every other day and raising them, feeding them, bathing them and everything. My father showed me that with his hands and with his heart. Over time, I just took that with me. “

Loveless’ father moved to Illinois from Mississippi during the Great Migration. She said her father applied what he learned in the south to his home farming.

“I remember going to high school and going to the store and comparing our fruits and vegetables to hers and comparing their prices to ours,” Loveless said. “I could not believe it. I told my parents that we didn’t need this because we were growing our own food. We don’t have to buy any of it because we have most of the things at home. And people bought it left and right. “

Loveless said she used social media to identify the needs of different audiences and determine what should grow. “Right now we only have one good market and that is the neighboring market in East St. Louis.”

Before the store opened in 2018, Loveless said that there was little fresh food in East St. Louis. Neighbors’ Market is one of the few full-service grocery stores in East St. Louis. The black-owned business works with local vendors to sell groceries while offering healthy groceries.

“When Schnucks went to Gateway [Marketplace] When we got there in 2015, it was nothing, ”said Loveless. “This town was a ghost on State Street when it came to fresh food. I had a lot of people who came to me. My neighbor got a lot of pumpkin and tomatoes from me. I was just disappointed. Like you’re kidding me. “

State Secretary Latoya Greenwood, whose district is part of East St. Louis, said she was working with the city’s mayor and other elected officials to address the issue. In 2018, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, of which Greenwood is a part, passed Act HB3418, which allows cities and counties across the state to establish urban farming zones where residents can grow their own produce. Greenwood said she was able to allocate about $ 800,000 to the East Side Health District in East St. Louis for its urban agriculture program and to expand some of the clinic’s services.

“I understand exactly how to live in a food wasteland and how it has affected our health, our education and so many other things. So I just want to work to fill that void further,” said Greenwood.

Greenwood said the pandemic exacerbated some of the systemic problems Black Americans face, which is why it partnered with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus last month to release an agenda for reforms to end systemic racism in the state. The caucus agenda is based on four pillars of policy: criminal justice reform, violence and police accountability; economic access, equity and opportunity; Education and human resource development; and Healthcare and Human Services. Greenwood said efforts to reduce food shortages are part of the economic access component of the agenda.

“We found that during this pandemic, these issues have emerged even more for us than for other groups of people and communities,” Greenwood said. “So it’s definitely a priority for the Legislative Black Caucus, it’s definitely a priority for me, who was born and raised in East St. Louis and still lives here, that we all have access to the nutrition we need, especially for our babies and our seniors. ”

James Burns, Loveless’ s former neighbor, agrees that the people of East St. Louis have limited options for getting fresh groceries. He has been closely related to the family for almost 20 years and has often fetched his cucumbers and tomatoes from Loveless’ garden, where he often helps.

“I got it mainly from her father,” said Burns, 60, of where he got most of his food. “I used to get fruit, corn, beans, vegetables, okra, and absolutely everything. But before that I went to Schnucks in East St. Louis before it closed, or I went to stores in Shiloh or Freeburg. “

Burns, who now lives in Belleville, said he has stood up for Loveless as a father figure since her father’s death.

“Whatever I can do for her, I’ll do it,” said Burns. “Sometimes I cut the grass, help out in the garden. I do whatever it takes. The lack of fresh food in East St. Louis is why I didn’t mind helping her plant and bring the garden together. She is a workaholic. “

Loveless said although she wasn’t letting many people come into her garden due to the pandemic, she is grateful for the support she has received from the community so far. She is busy asking neighbors about her gardens.

“Now I know how important land justice is, now I know what it means to be an urban builder. I value my calling. “

As the demands for social justice and an end to police brutality gain momentum in the fall, Loveless sees her work as particularly important.

“When you talk about giving away food from my garden, you are talking about people,” Loveless said. “And everyone comes with their own problems. And blacks have always been incriminated, and I want to help by advocating for food justice. “

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DeAsia Paige joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 2020 as a member of the Report for America Corps. She is a community reporter covering East St. Louis and the surrounding areas. DeAsia previously interned at VICE and The Detroit Free Press. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 2020.

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