Lisa Freeman is trying to turn a food desert into an oasis

Lisa Freeman is trying to turn a food desert into an oasis

Neighborhood activist Lisa Freeman, the visionary behind the Freeman Family Farm and Greenhouse, has all sorts of folks running scared on the North Side. 

Despite her reputation as a woman with little to no respect for developers or municipal power players attempting to stifle the voices of underrepresented homeowners in her Manchester neighborhood, she’s not an obstructionist. 

Neither is she the matriarch of a generationally entrenched political family or leader of a movement determined to exercise its fiefdom prerogatives against gentrifiers and fast-buck operators. Freeman scoffs at any characterization of her crusade to bring locally grown food and a grocery store to a community long known as a “food desert” as a scary plot to frustrate common sense capitalist investment in the area. 

Still, Freeman knows the title of her recently published book — “We Don’t Want a F*cking Farm on Our Street” — a chronicle of her battle with various financial, political and property interests on the North Side, sounds provocative, and perhaps needlessly so. But it is a verbatim description of what a member of the Manchester Citizens Corporation advisory board said to her during a very tense exchange.

Lisa Freeman started Freeman Family Farm and Greenhouse as a school and community garden in 2011. Photo courtesy of Lisa Freeman.

Because Freeman used to sit on the advisory board, it was particularly difficult for her to hear those words. She was aghast that her former colleague’s mask of neighborhood civility had so quickly fallen, revealing a deep disdain for the community’s interests. 

But instead of sulking or allowing herself to be intimidated, Freeman redoubled her efforts to bring what had already been a Herculean effort with her late husband, Wallace Sapp, to fruition. Freeman and Sapp had bought the site from the city with the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s blessing. Sapp died of pancreatic cancer in 2021.

“I made the sacrifice of selling a historic six- bedroom, four-bathroom Victorian home to afford accomplishing this dream,” Freeman says. A self-described “Black hillbilly,” Freeman then bought a 20-foot-wide RV and parked it on the property where the farm and grocery store she and Sapp had planned for years would bring healthy food to that corner of Manchester. But lawsuits from the MCC and complaints that she was a radical and a “detriment to the community” dogged her every step of the way. 

Freeman believes a potentially harmonious partnership with the MCC turned acrimonious because she was quicker to buy the dilapidated, crime-infested property on Juniata Street from the city. She tore it down to make way for urban farming and a grocery store before the developers, who promised to bring a Ferris wheel, tourism and new investment to the area, got their act together.

“It had a notorious background and no one would touch it,” Freeman says of the former glass plating factory. She recounted how the roof of the 10,000-foot space had fallen in. It took a lot of imagination on her part even with the perpetual optimism of her late husband goading her on to see its potential as a “light to the community.”

She contacted Job Corps and asked for help and advice. Job Corps brought its heavy machinery to the site. The student apprentices who were learning the construction trades were excited to get valuable experience with such a sprawling and troublesome structure. They got to work and tore the building down quickly, efficiently and safely. 

Freeman’s new book title is inspired by the real words of a member of the Manchester Citizens Corporation advisory board. Photo courtesy of Freeman Family Farm.

To her relief, Freeman wasn’t charged a dime for the work. Like most of her neighbors, she was delighted to see an eyesore transformed into a prime property that would soon begin to sustain itself financially once construction of the new building containing the grocery store is completed later this year. It will complement the large greenhouse a few feet away, where fruit and vegetables are currently being grown.

Freeman gives a lot of credit for the success of the Freeman Family Farm and Greenhouse to former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was an early supporter of the project back in the early 2010s. That’s when neighborhood farming was something that the kids at nearby Pittsburgh Manchester school used to do at the end of the day under her supervision. Freeman and the former mayor got along splendidly, she says. 

“Oh, he loved and supported that school,” Freeman says. “The kids loved him and thought he was a little Irish rock star who came to see and work with them.”

The genesis of her idea for “revolutionary gardening” began because she was someone who enjoyed “playing in the dirt with the kids at Pittsburgh Manchester,” she says with a laugh.

That project in its initial stage of simply growing food became the model for most Pittsburgh Public Schools. Students and teachers from across the city visited the pilot program Freeman had set up on the North Side to teach kids how to grow hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and beets.

“We started teaching the kids how to plant, how to take care of something, how to refocus anger and nurture something and watch it grow,” Freeman says. “It was an immediate success.”

Even in the early years, when the more exuberant student farmers would throw freshly picked eggplants like they were footballs, Freeman was not put off her game.

Lisa Freeman holds up images of the dilapidated industrial building she tore down to build the Freeman Family Farm store. Photo by Tony Norman.

“They were familiarizing themselves with food that was good for them,” she says. “The kids enjoyed being outside. They never knew or understood that they were that close to where their food was coming from.”

Freeman says that Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration has also been helpful. Karen Abrams, the outgoing director of the Department of City Planning, helped the Freeman Family Farm and Greenhouse cut through much of the bureaucratic red tape to bring the dream of a farm and grocery store on the North Side closer to reality. 

Freeman’s dream for a large grocery store and farm in Manchester goes beyond mere economic justice and access to healthy food for the entire community. It is also rooted in lessons learned as her husband was dying from cancer.

“He was given a date when he was expected to be gone,” she says.

During much of the medical drama, Freeman was taking culinary lessons at Bidwell Training Center, so she could learn to make the most of the food she was growing. She put herself and her husband on a strict diet of plant-based food because she had heard about its health benefits. She was stunned by the actual results. 

“He lost weight and held on for another five years beyond medical expectations,” she says, adding that he looked good and became much more active. “That’s when I became convinced that healthy food is medicine. What you put in your body — processed or unprocessed food — the meat that’s got coloring, the toxins and all of that matters.

“And being in this community where we have the highest risks, we’re one of the pockets of every kind of mortality issue. It’s here in the Black community, so I took that to heart.”

After extending his life with unprocessed food for half a decade during which he appeared to become healthy again, the cancer was detected again during an annual checkup. The “micro-dot,” as she describes it, spread despite chemotherapy that left Sapp weaker than he’d ever been. Freeman believes the chemo was more responsible for her husband’s death than the cancer itself. 

The takeaway for Freeman after the ordeal of her husband’s death is: grow — or buy — more fruits and vegetables and consume them daily. Farming entails a lot of moving around, usually outside, so exercise in the garden or greenhouse becomes a vital part of the process of physical renewal, too. Everything about the project is holistic.

A mural on the side of the New Zion Baptist Church next door to a guest house and the greenhouse on Lisa Freeman’s property. Photo by Tony Norman.

Letaj Tinker, the founder of Tink Design and the architect tasked with executing Freeman’s vision, spends a lot of time on Juniata Street fine-tuning the designs for the grocery store. He is also making sure that once it is finished, the community will be inspired to return countless times to keep the option of fresh food in Manchester alive and thriving. 

“I’m originally from the Bahamas, but I’ve worked for nonprofits in Pittsburgh for the last 10 years,” says Tinker, who was the director of community economic development at Operation Better Block in Homewood. Tinker is no stranger to bureaucratic foot-dragging and opposition to community initiatives by outside forces.

“A lot of the challenges that Lisa mentioned, we saw them in Homewood as well. That inspired me to break out on my own and start an architectural and design firm to provide supportive services for individuals and companies, nonprofit organizations like Miss Lisa’s who need help to make this vision a reality,” Tinker says.

Freeman frequently refers to Tinker as her “son,” and he seems fine with it. She laterals many of the technical questions about the grocery store to him. 

It is Tinker’s job to make sure that every nook and cranny is up to code because he knows that the scrutiny the grocery store will undergo will be relentless.

“This build is new construction,” Freeman says, “so it is costlier than a renovation. It’s a six-digit number going up to a million. We’re a little short, but not that short.”

Freeman and Tinker managed to raise $20,000 from various nonprofits, friends, fellow professionals and contacts who want to see the effort succeed. As of a few weeks ago when I interviewed them, they were $50,000 short of the final cost of construction. 

“This is more than just a grocery store,” she says. “I’m a social worker by profession and an urban farmer. This is a program. This is a membership. This is a grocery store that has medically tailored food boxes, so my program supports those with cancer, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and pregnant moms. We’re in a food desert. We have to eat better. We have tai chi, we have exercise, we have a trauma counselor. We have Duquesne [University] medical students who come here monthly to offer preventative services and blood checks. We’ll even have our own chef who used to work for the White House making many of the meals. We’re trying to build up community— a healthy community.”

The Freeman Grocery under construction in Manchester. Photo by Lisa Freeman.

It goes without saying that there will be no chips, sugary snacks or fried and greasy fast foods offered at the grocery store. Freeman is trying to enforce a new, healthier paradigm for a community uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of modern diseases and the costs of dealing with them. 

While it sounds utopian, Freeman says being an ethical grocery store was more practical and less expensive than the alternative.

Those who oppose the existence of the grocery store and farm haven’t given up. “We Don’t Want a F*cking Farm on Our Street” is more than a provocative title for a book by a neighborhood dissident. It is a heartfelt sentiment by more than a few people who consider Manchester and the entire North Side ripe for new development, regardless of the community’s wants or needs.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color and marginalized communities.

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