‘Generational’ garden providing food security in the Black community

Michael “Spirit Mike” Chaney in his “generational food” community garden in Tampa, Fla.
Photo by Christina Anderson

By Cilicia Anderson
Outlook writer

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United State, one man remembers seeing folks in his community flocking to the grocery store. They piled up on toilet paper, cleaning products and perishable goods, leaving the shelves barren. 

At the same time, many people were wondering where to find their next meal. That prompted Michael “Spirit Mike” Chaney to do something.

Chaney, a Tampa resident, set out on a mission to encourage people within his community to create their own food security. He is leading by example with his ‘generational food’ community garden. He started the garden by using his stimulus check and food assistance, something he said many people don’t know they can do.

 “They never told us that if you use those Food Stamps to buy a fruit and vegetable tree, if you have property, after a year you have an orchard, you have money, you have wealth,” Chaney said. “They never told us, if you want reparations you have it, you got it in your hand and they’re giving it to you every month but we don’t use it for wealth. They use it to control us because they haven’t told us what we could use it for, so I had to use my divine mind.”

Chaney said spirituality is a vital part of his mission to free Black people from government control. He believes Blacks struggle with health issues is because of tendencies to neglect the first commandment. He says we are supposed to maintain and nurture the Earth and in return be able to eat the fruits of our labor. 

He recalled being bullied by his classmates in elementary school for being overweight. Even as he slimmed down by the rigors of playing football, he acknowledged that his diet was still doing harm to his body.

His journey to healthier living began when he looked at the nutritional label of sea salt at the grocery store. He noticed that it did not contain iodine, a necessary nutrient that allows our glands to function properly. Chaney said that most people he asked believed iodine came from fish; however during his research he discovered that fish doesn’t contain iodine either. Most of the fish sold commercially is farm-raised, so iodine actually comes from kelp so he skips the fish and gets his iodine directly from kelp.

 The healthcare system arguably profits in its effort to address sicknesses because instead of telling Blacks what they should add or cut from their diet to prevent health issues, they have us buy and consume medication, Chaney said. He also believes that patients are treated with medication that is unnatural to the body. Chaney said Blacks should realize they are responsible for their health and should make beneficial health decisions for themselves. 

Dr. Jenelle Robinson, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Florida A&M University and a Certified Health Education Specialist, also recalls her struggles with weight as a child. She even developed an eating disorder in an attempt to lose weight so she wouldn’t be bullied by her peers.

Now she teaches her students and others in her community healthier alternatives for losing weight and why Blacks people are suffering.

“We know from observation that what we eat plays a significant role in decreasing our risk for certain health issues and that’s why I think it is important that we educate Black people on eating healthier, and eating more fruits and vegetables,” Robinson said. “I’ve heard people say that vegan lifestyle (is) eating like a White person (but) if you dig into your history, you go back to different geographical locations in Africa, they were vegetarians or they were vegans. They did not have that easy access to meat so they were the original vegans it wasn’t something we learned to be from White people, it’s in our DNA, it’s in our history to thrive on fruits and vegetables.”

Chaney and Robinson are on a mission to make nutritional information more accessible to Black people. Robinson hopes her partnership with the nonprofit Focus On Health and the growth of Chaney’s community garden inspires Black people to gain food independence.

“I think that it aids in us being self-sufficient, it aids in us not having to depend on grocery stores and big corporations to feed us,” Robinson said. “I think what we should be doing is planting our own foods and learning how to transmit that to the next generation, it’s a wonderful idea. 

“I don’t have a green thumb; I wish somebody would teach me because I would love to have herbs, spices and vegetables in my backyard. I would love to have someone come through and teach me how to do that.” 

Chaney hopes to expand his garden and create more in other urban areas. Danita Ashby, another Tampa resident who has been growing in her own garden for the last two years, said that Chaney gave her advice on planting techniques and is usually available to the community to answer questions.

“Our community could benefit from learning how to start their own garden and he is more than willing to help. He’s helped me with a couple of things as well that I didn’t know about growing,” Ashby said. “It’s healthier for them and no one ever prepares for stuff like the pandemic to happen.  So if something like that should occur again we will be prepared.”

Since growing and consuming her own food, Ashby said she feels more energetic and healthier. She also doesn’t have any concern about ingesting harmful pesticides and chemicals in what she eats, she said. Even amidst the pandemic, she is not worried about where she will find her next meal because now she doesn’t have to leave her home to shop for groceries.

That is what Chaney hopes to bring to other communities.

“I teach preparedness and food independence, because if someone else controls your food they control you,” Chaney said. “That’s why I’m growing my own food, because when chaos happens I’m drinking pomegranate juice and eating guava on my toast. If all of this chaos happens and you’re growing your own food somewhere safe, it doesn’t matter what’s going on out there; you’re fine.”