CHATHAM — At the intersection of food and technology, certain communities are always an afterthought, turning necessity into inaccessible luxury. Apps celebrated for bridging the divide can inadvertently widen it across socioeconomic lines. For years, companies like Peapod and Seamless weren’t available in some South Side neighborhoods.
Enter Sweet Potato Patch, a company created to bring healthy food options to those communities. Think Hello Fresh meets Peapod. When launched, subscribers will get a box of fresh produce delivered once or twice a month for about $30 per box. The company will also offer ready-to-make meals created by local chefs.
The brainchild of Stacey Minor, Sweet Potato Patch connects two generally overlooked groups: farmers from marginalized communities and black consumers.
Minor grew up in a food desert on the Far South Side, her family packing into a sedan to make the 16-mile trip to south suburban Homewood to shop at Jewel. Those monthly trips, and seeing her niece’s schoolmates eat Flaming Hot Cheetos for breakfast, gave her the idea for Sweet Potato Patch.
“I worked with a lot of black farmers who were afraid that they were going to lose their farms,” said Minor, who started her career as a research biologist for agricultural giant Monsanto in the mid-90s. “They had all this produce that was just going to go to waste. It didn’t make sense.”
The farmers — a diverse group of black, Native American, and women mostly located in the southeast, with some in downstate Illinois — needed a home for their produce, and dozens of South Side families, previously at the mercy of understocked mom and pop stores, could use it.
“Sweet Potato Patch connects the dots, using technology we use every day,” Minor said. “If you can open Uber Eats and order McDonald’s, why not healthy food?”
Minor did a test run at the Chicago Housing Authority’s Altgeld Gardens, getting to know the residents and their specific needs. Eventually, she’d expand the delivery area to Roseland, Chatham and Auburn Gresham, with a modest staff of four delivering produce on a schedule.
Sweet Potato Patch, according to its website, uses “smart technology and GPS Tracked Crowd-Sourced Delivery Technology to deliver farm-to-table, healthy food options to the front door of residents in Urban Food Deserts. Our farm-to-table food meets the needs and also the cultural necessity of our customers.”
For the app, Minor tapped into her alumni network at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for help. They answered the call, working on it for free.
“It was all hands on deck. We really came together,” said Minor, adding that some worked into the wee hours to see the project through.
Eventually, Minor hopes to expand to Gary and East St. Louis, where she’s already in talks with the mayor, she said.
The biggest obstacle has been funding. Recently, Minor was one of three local recipients of the American Heart Association’s Social Impact Fund, winning an undisclosed sum. She also received a $1 million Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant earlier this year to purchase a vacant site for her business incubator, where urban farming entrepreneurs can sell their products.
Minor hopes to become the angel investor she never had.
“White startups can get funding based on the idea of an app. Black folks have to have five-year projections,” said Minor, a Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences alumna. “And the investors who say they want to support women of color never really do.”
While the American Heart Association, the city and the Self-Help Credit Union have been a godsend to Minor, she has also spent a lot of her own money to make Sweet Potato Patch a reality, selling everything she owned and for a time moving in with her sister. She also took a job in human resources with Challenger, Gray and Christmas, where she has remained for nearly 20 years.
“I didn’t want to take out loans. I’d done it before, when I owned a flower shop Downtown, and I didn’t want to do that again,” recalled Minor. “But I needed money, so I had to get over that fear.
“I have this thing where I get up at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning to work but I never remember what I do. Apparently, one night I applied for the AHA’s Social Impact Grant without realizing it until morning.”
Minor is set to officially launch Sweet Potato Patch this season.
“Being able to do this is a calling,” Minor said. “Everyone deserves healthy food.”