Asar Hapi, 71, was loading a raised garden bed with a wheelbarrow full of organic soil when he learned that 10-year-old Jerrell Scott wasn’t very fond of squash.
“You don’t eat squash?” Hapi asked incredulously as his wife Natchura, 71, looked on with a wide smile, mildly shocked herself.
“That’s because you haven’t had any of ours,” said Asar. “We’ve got squash that takes so good you’ll be asking for more. You haven’t tasted it right.”
The Hapis, of Oak Park, and Scott, of Garfield Park, were two of more than 20 volunteers who converged on a plot of land in the 4900 block of West Quincy in Austin on Saturday to plant lettuce, bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and other fresh, organic produce in an area known for its concentration of grocery stores stocked with cheap, processed food.
“The garden is where produce is and produce is what’s vital,” said Hapi, a holistic doctor and a pioneer of Egyptian Yoga who said he’s helped rehab the careers of athletes like Chicago Bear legend Richard Dent with his proven breathing techniques and emphasis on a garden-based diet.
“The problem is that we’re not staying close to the garden, we’re staying close to the grocery store. Most of the food we eat is processed. You eat that and sure enough you’re going to have some health issues. So, the more connected to the earth we are, the better.”
Considered in Hapi’s terms, the garden on West Quincy Street is like connected tissue grafted onto a patient in recovery. It sits between two large, multiunit apartment buildings owned by Mercy Housing — which also owns and operates several other properties up and down the street.
Mercy, a national nonprofit headquartered in Denver, Colorado, has developed, preserved and financed more than 48,000 affordable homes to low-income families since its founding in the early 1980s, according to a statement on its website.
The organization’s Chicago branch has controlled the vacant land on West Quincy Street for more than 12 years, said Felix Matlock, Mercy’s regional vice president for resident services. Matlock said the nonprofit NeighborSpace, a community garden land trust, owns the vacant land and leases it to Mercy for about $1 each year.
This summer, the 24 raised garden beds on the site will become part of Mercy Housing’s afterschool and summer programing for children, said Dominique Davis, a resident services education coordinator with Mercy and the garden’s manager.
Davis said the youths will cultivate produce that will then be sold to the North Side-based meal delivery company Kitchfix. The company specializes in local and organic foods that are gluten-free and conform to a Paleolithic diet. What produce isn’t sold to Kitchfix will go to Mercy residents.
Mizani Jones, a student at Genevieve Melody Elementary School, was working hard pulling up weeds and readying the soil for produce that might make it into Kitchfix’s pork al pastor — marinated pork shoulder layered in pineapple-tomatillo salsa, organic roasted zucchini and carrots, and cilantro brown rice, according to the company’s catering menu.
Matlock said Jones and the few dozen other young volunteers will be paid a stipend of around $300 at the end of the summer program — a sum that pales in comparison to the program’s immaterial benefits, he noted.
“We get to know each other better and it makes us come together like one big family,” said Jones of her gardening experience.
Sarah Russo, an events manager with Kitchfix, said the partnership with Mercy, the fast-growing food company’s first, is part of its community outreach efforts. Earlier this year, she said, the company hosted a buffet for around 130 Mercy residents in honor of Martin Luther King Day. The experience, for the residents, was eye-opening.
“They ate foods they thought they weren’t going to like and discovered that it’s not just healthy but it’s also good,” Matlock said.
“Even the kids came back for salad and veggies,” said Russo. “This is all part of creating a palate for better food.”