PALS | Excess Crops, Empty Cupboards and The Professional Matchmaker Bringing Them Together

Stacey Minor is the founder of Sweet Potato Patch. (Photo courtesy of Stacey Minor)

The short version of Stacey Minor's story is that she grew up in a part of Chicago now considered a "food desert" because of the lack of fresh food available and has come up with such a great way to help that she's received more than $1.1 million of support.

Settling for that version, however, is like grabbing a meal from a drive-thru window when there's a savory spread available.

The more delicious version of her tale traces to the South Side of Chicago. More specifically, the Chatham neighborhood. Zooming in more, to the house of Matthew and Juanita Strickland, the one once seen in "Chicago" magazine with the word "black" painted on the sidewalk with an arrow pointing toward their front door.

The Stricklands were Stacey's grandparents. Matthew worked for the city. He was friendly enough with Mayor Harold Washington that as a girl Stacey visited his office. Her favorite trips downtown, however, were to see Juanita at her office with the Chicago Housing Authority. Stacey dreamed of one day wearing a suit and leading a team like her grandma.

Back to the house, though.

The Stricklands took pride in their meals. They were always made from scratch using quality produce. That included peaches, okra, green beans, tomatoes and more grown in their backyard.

Their daughter – Stacey's mom – wanted the same for her kids. When they moved into the Roseland neighborhood, they shopped at mom and pop grocery stores. Then the area deteriorated. They had to drive 45 minutes for decent produce. Things got better when they moved to Chatham, only to see another community crumble; again, they had long commutes for groceries. Still, it was worth the effort.

Stacey heard friends talk about frozen meals or picking up fast food. It never made sense to her. Didn't everyone treasure fresh, homemade food eaten with loved ones?

Stacey was in eighth grade when a guidance counselor recommended a high school for her and her best friend Josephine. A new place called Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.

"We looked at each other and were like, 'Who-uh-culture?!'" she said, laughing.

Soon, Stacey got hooked on biology and horticulture. During a summer internship at the University of Illinois, she experienced those fields overlapping.

Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Department of Plant Pathology, Stacey cut plants, put them into a blender and extracted their DNA. With sick plants, this helped determine the fungus causing the infection, so they knew how to treat it.

"Once I got into it, I LOVED it," she said. "I couldn't have imagined doing anything else."

Stacey attended the University of Illinois eager to continue studying plant biology. Yet she never considered a career in it.