In death, Freddie Gray's life sparked a movement. After the 25-year-old was killed in the spring of 2015 by Baltimore police, nationwide, Black folks fought for children to receive the support and resources that he lacked while living.

In his hometown, it laid bare how environmental factors — toxic contamination and poor access to fresh and healthy food and green space — contributed to early death.

As a toddler, Gray had seven times the safe limits of lead in his blood, the result of racist housing policies that left the city's Black residents living in dilapidated neighborhoods with houses home to lead water pipes and lead paint. Those same neighborhoods lacked access to not just healthy food, but food options at all. At the time of his death, the immediate area where he lived did not have a single grocery store — or even a fast-food restaurant.

Across the city, a quarter of residents lived in communities lacking access to grocery stores. And the protests that engulfed Baltimore in the aftermath of his killing exacerbated that reality, leading to supermarkets across the city shutting down. At the same time, citywide school closures deprived many Black Baltimore students of their most regular access to meals for two days.

That following summer, Heber Brown, a pastor in Baltimore, began to see Gray in nearly all his congregants at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, especially as he spent more and more time visiting members in the hospital. “Frankly, I grew tired of just giving a scripture and a prayer and leaving out of the hospital.”

Gray's death led to a monumental shift in Brown’s ministry and to a movement that has spread across hundreds of Black churches across the nation since 2015. He wanted to do more, and once he realized that diet and environmental conditions were the culprit, he felt he had to work to help his community get off the “merry-go-round of chronic disease and hospitalization.”

Food and nutrition insecurity puts people at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Black people are roughly two times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than white people, and are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than every racial and ethnic group except Native Americans.

Through Brown's organization, the Black Church Food Security Network, roughly 250 churches in a dozen states, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, have begun collaborating with Black farmers and churchgoers to create a food system offering more than just physical nourishment to the communities they serve.

Most churches, especially those across the South, sit on large lots home to ample growing space, Brown explained. Churches in the network have converted shares of those yards to farms, growing hundreds — some thousands — of pounds of fruits and vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and kale each season. The food is then distributed through free food banks and sometimes farmers markets partnered with other regional Black farmers.

Through the network, churches are given the skills and tools to implement the garden practices and have utilized native crops to ensure that even during the winter months the farms are producing.


Read More: Young Black Farmers Energized Despite Land Loss and Racist History


Countless churches outside of the network are doing the work, too, harvesting the power of the church to address food insecurity and chronic health issues. They’re also equipping neighborhoods with the tools and skills that will only become more vital as climate change threatens to disrupt food distribution networks through flooding and droughts.

In Black communities, Brown said, “you get corner stores, but very few grocery stores. You have the liquor stores and dialysis centers, but not a whole lot of green space.” After Gray’s killing he understood how “all of these things, and so much more, contributed to the low quality of health and wealth, and environment and power, in Black communities.”

The church, he believes, can help shift neighborhood realities at the local level in a way that ultimately leads to a national network of changemakers.

“As Black people, we're contending with gentrification and climate change, but we have the Black church — the largest landowner in Black America,” Brown said.

“When you think about even beyond the land that is ready to grow food upon, we also have the kitchens, classrooms, the vans, and communications instruments and technology that sits underutilized or not used at all Monday through Saturday.”

Studies have shown that urban farming has led to the direct improvement of the physical health of participants, increased mental health outcomes from social interactions, and has helped clean up air pollution and sop up floodwaters in communities.


Read More: Leaving the Church Isn't So Simple for LGBTQ+ Black Christians


Still, even as his organization has grown tenfold since 2018, questions remain, Brown acknowledged. Nationwide, will the Black church embrace this role, and, decades removed from the Civil Rights Movement, will Black folks begin to accept the church as a force for social justice again?

“The Black church has to be the starting point for engaging these issues,” Brown argued. “For anybody serious about the freedom, liberation, and self-determination of Black people, they have to acknowledge the history and power of the church, but I'm under no illusions about the many ways that it fails, the many ways that it fumbles the ball, and about its many complications and contradictions.”

Unraveling the “corporate food system”

Gregory Manning, pastor of Broadmoor Comunity Church in New Orleans, says advocating for issues around food and environmental equity has been an easy way to activate his members. (Adam Mahoney/Worldacad)

As Pastor Gregory Manning sat in his office tucked in the back of Broadmoor Community Church in New Orleans, portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. lined his wall — an ode to the strength of Black activism and its connection to Black religion.

“The church and the pastor leadership has a huge responsibility because we have people who are a captured audience and here to be educated,” Manning said. “Good leaders understand this and help our members mobilize to get out and do the work.”

While Manning's church is not a part of the Black Church Food Security Network, similar environmental and climate activism work flows through its sanctuary. Every week, church volunteers operate two food pantries, and much of the food distributed is grown on the property itself.

Additionally, through the Community Lighthouse Project, a coalition of 85 New Orleans churches, the church's roofs are strapped with solar panels. It has helped alleviate the church's carbon footprint and allows the building to serve as a resiliency hub during power outages and natural disasters.

Manning, a climate activist who ran to represent New Orleans on the state's Public Service Commission, said advocating for issues around food and environmental equity has been an easy way to activate his members.

“Often, people hear the language of climate change on television, and it frightens them,” he said, “but we've been able to show how simple it is to take individual actions.”

It's a piece of a lineage of activism in the community. Following Hurricane Katrina, Broadmoor, a historically Black neighborhood situated on low-lying ground, was completely wiped out by stormwaters. It flooded so severely that the commission tasked with rebuilding New Orleans initially designated the half-a-square-mile neighborhood to be completely leveled and turned into park land. 

Neighborhood mobilization prevented that from happening, but residents know that with storms becoming stronger, preventative measures mean everything, Manning explained.

Back in Baltimore, Brown hopes that when church members begin to make these local connections, the work of community farming will turn into widespread action.

“There is nothing so spectacular about me or about Pleasant Hope Baptist Church that would say that this cannot be replicated in other places,” he said. 

And it helps when people see the results for themselves, whether it is a church's new garden preventing water from collecting near a street that used to always flood or the benefits of a cleaner diet.

In Brown's church, he said members began growing small gardens at their homes after seeing the positive changes.

“People started testifying about not having to take as many pills, about their health improving, and kicking cigarettes. And we got more comfortable being in closer proximity with one another.”

“Black America has been on the receiving end of the weaponry from big agriculture and the corporate food system in the United States,” he added. “We're trying to show that the Black church can help to unravel this ball of yarn that has entangled us in this very unfortunate and unhealthy dynamic.”

To learn more about opportunities with the Black Church Food Security Network, click here.

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @AdamLMahoney