On a spring Wednesday at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, volunteers gather around tables, arranging loose boxes of pantry items for Wednesday pickup. Reverend Gary Bernard Williams and Labrenda Joyce Parker, one of his followers, walk down a long hallway, past a nursery, a classroom-turned-supply center, and the pantry.

The couple quickly walk through the kitchen, out into the driveway, and round the corner. In an adjacent plot, they find themselves in the Prayer and Products garden. Williams first envisioned this garden two years ago as a way to supplement Wednesday pantry giveaways. Planters line a small portion of land, bordering a spiral and a cross. Whatever grows in the garden, Williams gives away.

In South Los Angeles, liquor stores outnumber grocery stores, according to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Residents face the lowest supermarket-to-person ratio of any area in Los Angeles: for every 9,025 people there is one store. And while in every neighborhood people suffer from diet-related illnesses, in South Los Angeles people are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

Williams describes the unequal supply of healthy food as an apartheid system, where food is more accessible to affluent white communities than to low-income communities of color. Residents have little or no access to fresh produce and healthy food at the store and instead there is an excess of fast food chains.

These are the facts that drive Williams’ fight for food justice. He is a leader in the city, using food sovereignty – the simple idea that all people should have the right to define their food systems – to combat food insecurity that has existed for decades, if not centuries; the problem has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and fueled by economic uncertainty.

At the start of the pandemic, the church pantry grew from feeding 40 families every two weeks to over 100 families every Wednesday. “You know people are hungry,” said Parker, who manages the garden. “But when you see 100 people line up every Wednesday, it sounds different.”

Reverend Gary Williams and Labrenda Parker are excited about the potential of the new batch and all the people they can feed with what they grow there.

Then, last year, Williams started noticing something else. In different pockets of Los Angeles, those where fast-food chains are plentiful and tree cover rare, grocery stores were disappearing. First, the Food4Less in East Hollywood has closed its doors for good. The Ralphs of Pico-Robertton followed. And then another Ralph’s, just two miles from St. Mark’s, closed, leaving a brand name supermarket – another Ralph’s – within a 2 mile radius of the church.

Ralph’s parent company, Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger, closed supermarkets over a ‘hero pay’ mandate that required companies to pay employees an additional $5 an hour in response to pandemic working conditions. Two of the three stores were in South Los Angeles. The company claimed that the three stores were badly executed. Meanwhile, Kroger’s profits increased by more than 5% This year.

“We don’t have enough supermarkets in our communities, but every time you look around there’s a new 7-Eleven,” Williams said. “I could probably count 10 7-Elevens within five miles of this church.”

However, it was the pandemic that prompted him to act. “I believe God gave me this vision to create gardens,” he said.

So St. Mark’s partnered with Jennifer Oliver, food specialist and ordained pastor, to create a garden that could meet the needs of the community.

Now, Williams and Oliver are creating a model for other churches and religious organizations across the United States to copy. The first stop was the church garden, where vegetables are used to supplement gifts from the pantry. The next step is to transform a 9,500 square foot land of The United Methodist Church into an urban farm that will act as a new arm of the church.

“I see this as an enduring way to redefine the church,” Williams said.

The cemetery garden

Churches are at the heart of many communities and are uniquely positioned to transform their land into space to grow food because they have the organizing power and a history of feeding those in need. Williams had the space on the church grounds to grow food, so he did.

In May, Parker pointed to remnants of last year’s planting: lettuce and mint sprouted from grow bags in the center of the garden. Meanwhile, along the perimeter, new plantings had begun, with tomatoes climbing up wire netting alongside carrots and spinach. Two years ago, soil tests revealed to Williams and his team that the soil was too toxic to plant – it is riddled with pesticide remnants – so everything is planted instead in bags made from natural materials. But, in a corner of the garden, new courgettes are growing in the soil produced by the garden’s compost.

In the center of the garden, a spiral of lettuce and gravel leads to a cross. In addition to providing fresh produce, the garden was designed as a space for meditation.

Parker, a retired state employee, was inspired by Williams’ vision and began volunteering, learning as she went. Now she manages the garden with another volunteer, which involves weeding, planting, harvesting and maintaining the space. One of the biggest challenges Williams faced was finding people willing to participate in the gardening process, but Parker took on this ambitious role with vigor.

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