Urban Growers Collective converts Chicago city buses into mobile produce stands for city food deserts.

Everyone knows that fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But what do you do if produce isn't available in your neighborhood and you don't have the means to go somewhere else?

Food deserts are a problem in some urban areas. Imagine having a 7-11 as your only grocery store for miles, not having access to a car, and not having public transportation as a viable option. Lack of healthy food options can have long-term impacts on people's health, increasing chronic issues like diabetes and heart disease and leading to greater health disparities between socioeconomic groups.

In Chicago, neighborhoods that are predominantly black are particularly hard hit by food deserts. According to the Chicago Reporter, African Americans make up about a third of Chicago's population, but almost 80 percent of the population of "persistently low or volatile food access areas."

Even as Chicago has attempted to mitigate this issue by putting in more supermarkets, the neighborhoods with the most need are still not gaining adequate access to fresh foods. Most of the new supermarkets are being put into "food oases," where there are already options for buying healthy foods. So food deserts persist.

That's where Fresh Moves Mobile Market comes in. A project of the Urban Growers Collective, Fresh Moves refurbishes old city buses, converts them into mobile produce stands, and brings fresh fruits and vegetables to food desert neighborhoods. The Mayor's Office and the City of Chicago have partnered with the program, and with the support of Barilla US and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Fresh Moves served 10,000 Chicagoans more than 17,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2018.

The company behind the mobile market, Urban Growers Collective (UGC), is a non-profit organization that creates educational programs and partnerships to achieve its overarching mission to positively influence food-deprived neighborhoods in Chicago's South and West Side communities. Led by Co-founders Erika Allen and Laurell Sims, the goal is to make nutritional food more accessible and affordable, create economic opportunities, and break systemic patterns.

"Laurell and I work together to embed our passion for social justice and healing into all initiatives at UGC to positively influence the lives of Chicago's oppressed population," says Co-Founder Erika Allen. "We provide the tools needed for personal growth and to combat systemic injustices in food systems," adds Co-Founder Laurell Sims.

Malcolm Evans is the Urban Farms Production Manager for the Urban Growers Collective, and he helped with the re-launch of the Fresh Moves Mobile Market. "We base our locations off of communities that don't have grocery stores nearby and therefore have a shortage of healthy food options for their families in those areas," he told Upworthy. "We try go to community centers and neighborhoods where we can offer food to groups of people at a time. I grew up in these neighborhoods, so I'm very aware of the food access and living conditions and I know where healthy food options are needed."

Evans says that 70% of the produce delivered by Fresh Moves is grown by farms that Urban Growers Collective has throughout the city. In fact, he got his own start at a community garden where he met Erika Allen as a kid. "The community garden was a safe zone where I could hang out, help out on the farm and avoid violence," he says. "I was able to figure myself out more and realized that I wanted to pursue this as a career. I became the great farmer that I am today as a result of my childhood working with Erika."

UGC operates seven urban farms on 11-acres of land predominantly located on Chicago's South Side. Each farm utilizes organic growing methods, intensive growing practices that maximize space, and year-round production strategies. Staff on these farms integrate education, training, leadership development and food distribution, supporting the UGC mission to provide opportunities for people in underserved communities.

Three cheers for this women-led, grassroots initiative that is making a real difference in the lives of thousands.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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