Five years ago, Chad Summers was very sick.

The then-40-year-old stay-at-home father of three was battling digestive issues and plaque psoriasis, and taking heavy doses of skin steroids and other medications. Summers said he feared for his life, and, at times, felt like a leper.

Then, Summers changed what he was eating.

He and his family launched into a “whole food cleanse,” in which they cut out animal products, dairy and meat and stuck to organic and plant-based foods. Summers started to feel better.

“All my vegetarian friends I had previously made fun of, I started asking them for information,” Summers, now 45, said. “Five years and thousands of hours of research later, they all come to me for information.”

After his diet makeover, Summers and his son Nieko opened an organic community garden and garden center called Healthy Harvest Urban Farms in East Moline.

“I made this connection between agriculture and health and why so many people are sick now,” Chad Summers said. “I wanted to do something about it.”

After outgrowing that location, the father-son duo expanded to downtown Rock Island, where their specialty grocery store, also called Healthy Harvest, opened in mid-June. The store’s cafe, offering an exclusively seasonal and vegan menu, debuted last Wednesday. 

Through the store and cafe, Summers hopes to help Quad-City residents lead healthier and better lives.

“I was able to treat myself with food,” he said. “All I want to do is share that message.”

Filling a food desert

Last July, Summers and his three kids moved into an apartment across the street from Healthy Harvest. And they realized they were living in a food desert.

“We had to go to five different stores for what we needed for one meal,” said Nieko Summers, 23, store co-owner. “Now we have everything here.”

"Everything" includes freshly-picked vegetables and fruits, along with milk, eggs, cheese and meats produced by more than 30 farms in western Illinois and Iowa. There are also dozens of bulk bins housing a variety of seeds, beans, rolled oats, spices and more.

Some farmers drop food off at the store. The Summers pick up additional items from the Freight House Farmers Market on Saturdays.

“We want to expand the reach for farmers. To truly change the local food systems, the farmers are first on the line,” Summers said. “This doesn’t happen without them.”

The store houses a 38-foot walk-in refrigerator to house produce. Anything “not pretty enough for the shelves” is donated to area food pantries, Summers said.

The Summers crew got Healthy Harvest up and running thanks to an $85,000 forgivable loan from the Development Association of Rock Island and a $40,000 private loan from an area farmer.

And they still have 4,000 square feet of vacant space to grow into.

“There’s nothing (else) like this in the Quad-Cities, so it’s going to be trial and error,” Summers said. “Slowly, but surely.”

'We are what we eat'

During a break from work earlier this week, Summers drank his go-to smoothie, a concoction that includes half of a pound of lettuce, ginger root, hemp seeds, almond milk and a banana. He hasn’t been sick since he started drinking these smoothies every morning five years ago. 

In fact, Summers feels like he's a teenager again. The store owner works 18-hour days and gets by with five hours of sleep.

He owes the transformation to giving up what he calls the “S.A.D.” diet, or the “Standard American Diet,” which consists of “all preservatives, a lot of meat and not a lot of vegetables.”

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Summers wants to help others adapt a happier way of eating.

That's why he started a nonprofit, called Sprouting Minds, to educate young people about how to grow sustainable food. It hosts programs at Healthy Harvests’ East Moline property. 

That’s also why Summers opened a cafe in the store. It features made-to-order vegan sandwiches, salads and smoothies.

In place of ovens or fryers, the kitchen operates with induction plates and commercial dehydrators. Even the cafe’s straws and cups are eco-friendly.

“It’s all about getting rid of those excuses that everyone has,” Summers said. “A lot of it is prep time. People don’t have time to prepare meals with whole foods.”

He hopes to mark out another excuse: Cost.

“You shouldn’t think high cost when you hear the word 'organic',” he said. “You should think healthy soil, clean drinking water, nutritious vegetables and fruits.”

Over the last month, Summer says business has been good. For his family and other downtown Rock Island residents, the food desert is gone. 

"A lot of people come in with questions," he said. "They wonder, 'Why should I try this or that?"

He's eager to answer and pass on information. Because that's what saved his life. 

“I go to sleep thinking about it and I wake up thinking about how we can get people to think differently about their food,” he said. “Because we literally are what we eat.”