Thursday, January 10, 2019 || By Michael Romain || SPONSORED CONTENT || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Loretta Brown and Lena Hatchett, the co-founders of Proviso Partners for Health. | Submitted
When news spread in March 2016 that Proviso Partners for Health would receive $2.5 million in grant funds over five years from Trinity Health — a national, nonprofit Catholic health system based in Michigan — many residents in Proviso Township were curious about the fancy new startup that had seemed to materialize from nowhere.
But Proviso Partners for Health (PP4H), a grassroots multi-sector coalition of local community organizations that formed in 2014 to fight childhood obesity in the west suburbs, is in reality neither fancy nor new.
The coalition dates back to 2006, when Lena Hatchett, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, and Loretta Robinson, a Maywood resident and master gardener, met during a meeting.
“I had been interested in a farmer’s market and community gardens, but had not been able to interest other people in doing a market up to that point,” said Brown. “Lena was new to the community and she had ideas about what she wanted to do while I had my own ideas.”
Not long after that first encounter, Hatchett and Brown began work on what would eventually become the Maywood Multicultural Farmers Market — their first joint initiative and a precursor to everything that would follow, including PP4H.
“We came together to begin this long journey and we’ve been together ever since,” Brown said. “The name says a lot about what we wanted to do. We wanted the farmer’s market to be multicultural.”
The market, which featured produce sold by African American farmers, was first located in a parking lot owned by St. Eulalia Parish in Maywood. In the beginning, they said, the market was a hit.
“We’d sell out every week,” said Hatchett. “We had a farmer from Michigan who grew up in Maywood and had committed to selling at the market.”
The market, they said, was a community affair during those first three years. Young people would interact with senior citizens, who would revel in the market’s various on-site cooking demonstrations while area students learned life skills like counting and handling money. In a way, the market had created a village.
“We were teaching them as they came to the market,” said Brown. “We talked about marketing and wholesaling — all these different skills they’d need in the future.”
But a storm cloud was brewing just over the horizon, Brown and Hatchett said. Roughly three years after hosting the market in St. Eulalia’s lot, the women were told that they had to move. Although they eventually found space beside the Maywood Public Library to host the market, the move cost them customers and farmers.
That delicate balancing act of levelling supply with demand was becoming ever more precarious. Sometimes farmers showed up with too much food and not enough customers and other times there were too many customers and not enough food. Sometimes Hatchett and Brown had to purchase the produce themselves because of a lack of farmers.
To make matters worse, Maywood was starting to feel the effects of the financial crisis of 2008. Businesses along 5th Avenue began to close. Gas prices were at an all-time high.
“We were practically paying farmers to come,” said Hatchett. “In those days, every single thing that could go wrong for us did.”
Despite the challenges, the longtime friends said, they never seriously entertained the thought of quitting.
“We were committed to a longer term vision,” Hatchett said. “We were not going to close until the community said, ‘You better close!’”
By 2011, the market had closed, but Brown and Hatchett were still open for business. That year, Brown took a call from a village official who told her about a Cook County grant that would allow her and Hatchett to hire some of the most at-risk young people in Maywood and teach them an array of skills—including those related to gardening and business development.
“We weren’t using the term equity back then, but we were focused on changing the structure of things,” Hatchett said. “Nobody wanted to work with these guys, but we didn’t screen them or require references or anything like that. We simply created opportunity. We made the program fit the people—not the other way around. That was really important to us, which was why we had all those behavioral issues.”
Despite the challenges, Hatchett said, “hope was driving us.” And those challenges would ultimately pay off. Some of those young people, she said, have careers because of that program.
By the spring of 2014, Hatchett and Brown were invited by the Cook County Department of Public Health and the United Way to convene what would eventually become the PP4H coalition, which included not only institutions like Loyola University Health System, but also (and they would say, most importantly), a range of local community groups and stakeholders.
At first, the main focus of interest was childhood obesity, but the coalition’s focus would quickly expand to comprise six hubs of interest: Economic Justice and Community Leadership Academy; Food Justice; Elementary School Wellness; High School Wellness; Built Environment (for active living); and Tobacco-Free Living.
“Health is more than physical,” Hatchett said. “We look at health systemically to include everything from economic justice to mental health to the built environment.”
Since 2016, Hatchett and Brown have been able to return to where it all began. With the funding that it generated, PP4H was able to create a year-round garden in Maywood that grows tons of produce, some of which feeds people at St. Eulalia’s soup kitchen operated by the parish’s Quinn Community Center.
Gabriel Lara, Quinn’s former executive director who now works on economic justice initiatives with PP4H, said that the coalition has helped him hone a valuable skill.
“I’m learning how to listen to the community and how to let myself be guided by community voices when it comes to the direction where the community should be going,” he said. VFP
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