LaDonna Redmond Strikes at the Root of Childhood Obesity

Chef Kocoa

LaDonna Redmond is an empowered mother — the kind of mom we need more of — to stem the tide of the childhood obesity epidemic. She’s been called a pioneer, a visionary, a green-collar hero, and a woman who is shaping the world.

Last month, in her capacity as President and CEO of The Institute for Community Resource Development (ICRD), she was a featured speaker in the Schweitzer Fellows Program’s “Leadership by Example” lecture series. An author who goes by “albertschweitzer” says,

Through her work with ICRD, Ms. Redmond assists residents of urban communities in obtaining access to safe, healthy food through the development of alternative food systems. ICRD also works on other issues that relate to sustainability, which include encouraging the use of local land to grow food, assisting community residents to develop farmer’s markets, food buying clubs, and Co-ops that are linked with family owned organic produce and meat farms in the region.

Redmond’s newest project is a collaboration with a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who have opened a different kind of grocery story in Chicago’s inner city. Fresh Family Foods is a 2,500-square-foot space that offers plenty of fresh produce, hot meals, pleasant music, a juice and coffee bar, and no alcohol or tobacco products. This establishment wants its customers to feel respected and trusted. Unlike other local stores, it has no bulletproof glass around the cash register station. Only a couple of weeks ago, ABC News produced a segment about Fresh Family Foods.

Redmond has made national news before, as the founder of Graffiti and Grub, a hip-hop-oriented eatery and community center. She has been written about in Time magazine more than once, and her activism has been covered by The New York Times.

An Antioch College alum and published writer, Redmond is also involved with the Chicago Food Systems Collaborative, and she sits on the local and national boards of several organizations, such as the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. Although her husband Tracey doesn’t get as much publicity, he is also right there in the midst of all this activity. As responsible parents, they are role models for us all.

Historically, this all started when Redmond became aware of her little son’s numerous food allergies, which posed a danger to his life and created havoc in the family’s routine. The concerned parents began to study up on nutrition, food production, and food politics. It became clear that neither pesticides nor genetically engineered foods were acceptable. Also to be avoided were such abominations as the strangely gray carrots — available locally. The Redmond family decided to go organic, which meant traveling to another neighborhood for shopping, not to mention paying astronomical prices. This led to a backyard garden plot, starting out with seven vegetables and some herbs. In a 2004 piece for New Farm, the Rodale Institute magazine, Redmond wrote,

Illinois is the leading state in soybean production and the second leading state in corn. One out of every four jobs in Illinois is agriculturally related. This is the Corn Belt. Surely, I thought, I can grow corn in Chicago.

In “Building the Green Economy,” an author who goes by “delaneyp” takes up the story of how Tracey quit his job to become a full-time urban farmer. All the current research shows that minority group members are more at risk for childhood obesity and its lifelong medical consequences, including diabetes and heart disease. In this minority neighborhood, other people got interested and have banded together with the Redmonds to turn empty lots into organic gardens. This story notes,

When she saw that her personal issue was connected to a web of problems, she realized that the remedy her son needed was exactly what the neighborhood needed: healthy food. Redmond’s individual difficulty took on a political dimension the minute she realized she was not alone.

Redmond convinced the Chicago elementary school system to create a task force to take a look at junk-food vending machines in schools, and to think about innovative ideas like connecting farmers with schools. Her efforts helped convince Chicago’s mayor that space in the city can and should be used to show that food production can be local and sustainable. There are something like 70,000 vacant land parcels in Chicago, and Richard M. Daley got on board with the concept of making his city the greenest urban area in the country.

Of course, bringing affordable fresh produce to a “food desert” can’t single-handedly cure childhood obesity. A child who is already a food addict needs inner resources, and the support of her or his family, to change. But once a kid gets motivated, there has to be somewhere to get hold of some decent edibles. Even more important is the availability of nutritious, unprocessed food — a must for parents who want to start their kids off right, so food addiction can never get its claws into them.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Turning ‘Food Deserts’ into Farmers’ Markets,” Beyond Boulders, 08/04/10
Source: “Creating local food options in an urban setting,” The New Farm, 11/09/04
Source: “Building the Green Economy – Intro,” galileoweb.org, 08/30/2010
Image by vinzcha, used under its Creative Commons license.

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