PCC Community Wellness Center building

Chicago nonprofit brings urban farm to food desert, sowing seeds for change

By Ellen Nason

(Note: This is the third in a series of videos and articles profiling the three winners of this year’s $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grants.)

The PCC Community Wellness Center in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood was built with an all-glass front to visually demonstrate that all local residents are welcome to come in, said Robert Urso, President and CEO of the center. But he soon realized that PCC needed to do more than invite people into the building. He and his staff needed to leave the four walls of the building and really join the community.

“We’re here for the community,” Urso said of the medically underserved area, “and it’s not just to provide health care. We need to help make life better, easier.”

PCC Community Wellness Center, which recently won a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant, is taking a giant step toward achieving its dream of giving back to the community by turning an 8,000-square-foot vacant lot into an urban farm that will bring fresh, affordable produce to a food desert on the west side of Chicago.

Doctors would talk to their patients about ways to create a healthier lifestyle, but local residents, many struggling with poverty-related health issues, didn’t have easy access to the fresh fruits and vegetables that they needed to improve their diets, said Urso.

The grant from the Humana Foundation provided the center with an opportunity to make its dream come true, said Urso. The grant will be used to design and build the farm and train those who will sustain it.

PCC has deep roots in all of the communities its 11 centers serve and places a priority on employing local residents, such as Tyrise Brinson, Healthy Start Specialist at the Austin center and a passionate advocate for the farm and her neighborhood.

“I believe this will change the fabric of the community,” said Brinson. “It’s huge.

“There’s a seed that’s planted and then something beautiful sprouts from it,” she said. “And I believe that’s the same thing that’s going to happen to this community with this garden … one member at a time.”

PCC asked Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest to design and help build the farm, which will be named by local residents.

Transforming the vacant lot into a beautiful garden will also help transform the community, said Angela Mason, Director of Windy City Harvest, the urban agriculture job training program for the Chicago Botanic Garden.

In addition to the 30 raised beds where produce will grow, the farm will include an outdoor gathering space and offer opportunities for residents to be more active and get outside as they walk to and from the garden and help maintain it by weeding and raking, said Mason.

The plans also include seasonal workshops to expand knowledge about the food they are growing, classes about diet-related diseases and activities for children that promote healthier choices.

“The benefits to a community are profound,” said Mason, who explains that urban gardens can promote the growth of new relationships between neighbors who develop a shared passion in improving their own health and well-being as well as the health of their neighborhood.

The urban gardens improve diets, but they also nourish the community as whole, planting a seed of an idea that becomes a dream that grows and spreads to neighboring communities, she said.

2014 Humana Communities Benefit Grant Winners
In addition to PCC Community Wellness Center, two other nonprofits received a $350,000 grant. To learn more about them, click on the links below.

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