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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Category: Seedlings

Danielle Nierenberg will speak at Chicago Botanic Garden on World Environment Day

Cassandra West

Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues, will give the keynote address, “The Food Scorecard: Local and Global,” during World Environment Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden on June 6.

The food activist and sustainable agriculture expert will share insights gleaned from two years spent meeting with farmers and farmers’ groups, scientists and researchers around the world about protecting the environment.

The two-year-old New York-based Food Tank is a 501(c)(3) that focuses “on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.”

Nierenberg, who says our food system depends on a healthy environment, points to the fact that agriculture is responsible for much of the environmental degradation all over the world.

In a recent email to Food Tank followers, she wrote: “Beekeepers continue to lose 30 percent of honeybee colonies during an average winter likely because of pesticides and other agrochemicals. Soil degradation is occurring at staggering rates with soils being depleted 10 to 40 times faster than they are being replenished. And up to 100,000 plant varieties are currently endangered worldwide.”

A panel of local agriculture and food advocates will join Nierenberg: Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and the Windy City Harvest program. Mason will discuss the indispensable role of training and education in creating a sustainable agriculture system in both urban and ex-urban environments. Other panelists include Jim Slama, founder of Family Farmed and the Good Food Business Accelerator; Kris Murray, director of the Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute at Kennedy King College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago; and Bobby Turner, regional vice president of purchasing and distribution for the Whole Foods Market Midwest Region. The presentation begins at 10:30 a.m. in the Alsdorf Auditorium.

The actual World Environment Day, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is Friday, June 5. This will be the Botanic Garden’s eighth annual World Environment Day celebration, designed to inspire environmental action with a full day of presentations, demonstrations and family activities from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

  • WGN-TV chief meteorologist Tom Skilling will questions about local weather trends and global climate change, and discuss action the Garden is taking to mitigate these risks.
  • Jacob Burns, curator of herbaceous perennials, will answer questions atop the Plant Science Center’s green roof garden, an ongoing research project evaluating the best plants for rooftops in the upper Midwest.
  • Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., will present her research on breadfruit, a non-traditional food crop with the potential to feed citizens in the world’s poorest countries.
  • Other researchers will present work on night time pollinators, monarch butterflies, wild land restoration, the ecology of urban rooftop gardens,and managing native prairies.
  • Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg will offer tips on growing vegetables the organic way.
  • Cleetus Friedman, executive chef of innovative Chicago eateries Fountainhead, the Bar on Buena and the Northman and a leader in Chicago’s green food movement will offer up ways to prepare fresh. Friedman will give cooking demonstrations at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden Demonstration. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Members of the sustainable agricultural community, such as Band Farmers: The Chicagoland CSA Coalition and the East Slope Farms CSA, will provide information on obtaining locally and sustainably grown produce, and supporting regional farmers.

One Earth Film Fest April 27-29 in Oak Park/River Forest

Cassandra West

To stimulate dialogue and inspire planet-friendly action, Green Community Connections in Oak Park is hosting its first One Earth Film Fest 2012 April 27-29.The planning committee evaluated and considered more than 300 films, then narrowed its final selections to 16 feature-length films that have received critical acclaim within the green film community. Another 12-17 shorter features also will be part of the eclectic mix of cinematic offerings during the weekend, which kicks off with a

Green Carpet Gala at Oak Park Conservatory on the evening of April 27. Several of the films being shown include “The Last Mountain,” “Waste Land,” “A Fierce Green Fire,” “What’s On Your Plate?” “Wall-E,” “Journey of the Universe” and “Queen of the Sun.” Showings will take place at multiple venues in Oak Park and River Forest. “Our intent is to cultivate awareness, spur involvement, and promote environmental sustainability in our own community and beyond,” said Sally Stovall, who led one of the planning committees. “The films chosen by Green Community Connections for its first festival are compelling, powerful and rich in their diversity of topics, but also focused on inspiring each of us to think about the role we can play in protecting our planet. We’re hoping to offer something meaningful for every member of the family.” Tickets and a complete list of films and show times are available at One Earth Film Festival 2012. Admission is free to most screenings and events. Advance ticket purchases are required for the “Green Carpet Gala” on Friday, April 27. For more information on the fest, visit Green Community Connection’s festival page and its Facebook page. You can also follow the group on Twitter.

Locally grown, locally produced foods taking hold

Cassandra West

Take a look around and perhaps you’ve noticed a trend we’ve been following recently: the growth of locally produced specialty foods and drinks. Increasingly, local foods entrepreneurs are moving beyond selling produce fresh from the garden or farm. Many are now turning locally grown produce into condiments, teas, seasonings, herbal tinctures, bath and body care lotions and salts.

The boutique food products haven’t exactly knocked the Lipton and Heinz brands off supermarket shelves yet, but they’re catching on. You’re still more likely to find them, though, at farmers’ markets and small natural foods stores like Real Naked Foods in Wicker Park, which opened this past spring. And, Oak Park-based Family Farmed is giving a boost by constantly promoting the production and distribution of locally grown and produced food.

We've taking to checking out local foods, purchasing ones that appeal to our tastes — and sometimes just pure curiosity. This summer we picked up a jar of a wonderfully delicious and tangy pickled okra at the Oak Park Farmers Market. And, yes, we liked it a lot.

But it was the Family Farmed Expo that truly opened our eyes to what’s happening in this growing segment of food production. While strolling through FF’s vendor fair at this past spring, Seeding Chicago chatted with many of the vendors who were selling products. (Imagine actually talking with a food producer. You’d be lucky if someone from Heinz even took a call your call.)

We didn’t leave the Expo empty handed. We took home some incredible kombucha (fermented tea) made by Nessalla in Madison, Wis.; a chunky and bold cranberry catsup from The Scrumptious Pantry; a tongue-tingling poblano sauce by Co-Op Sauce, a nonprofit that supports a youth art center and community arts initiatives in Chicago’s Humboldt Park Neighborhood; a package of no-cholesterol spinach tortilla wraps from La Mexicana Tortilleria, Inc., in Chicago, and some out-of-this-world specialty blended teas by SenTEAmental Moods Teas, located here in Chicago.

Lori, the owner of SenTEAmental makes some of the most creative blends anywhere. She's even blended smooth, decadent tea made with sweet potatoes, vanilla, almonds, sunflower, jasmine and calendula petals called Southern Comfort.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Check out the video above and hear directly from this new breed of food producers. And, if you have a favorite local food you’d like to tell us about, Email us here.


How does your garden grow: Make your own compost

Cassandra West


Composting was long sort of a mystery to me. Making soil? Your own dirt? I didn’t get it. Even after driving to Milwaukee and taking a tour of Will Allen’s big composting enterprise, Growing Power, I was still wondering what was the big deal about dirt and worms.

Then my friend Nancy told me about her “black gold.” That’s what she calls the rich compost mixture she and her family create in their backyard from the food scraps, paper waste, garden clippings and dead leaves they collect through the seasons. When spring comes, she taps into her black gold to fertilize her vegetable garden. And her tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peas all grow stronger because of it.

Last spring, I paid a visit to Nancy’s garden just as she was getting ready to spread the wealth of her compost pile. An hour in her back yard and suddenly composting made sense.

In this video, she explains it all.

One Seed Chicago: Eggplant, radish or swiss chard?

Cassandra West

One Seed ChicagoThinking about what to plant when the growing season finally returns to Chicago? After a long, cold, snowy winter like the one we’ve had here, many local gardeners are dreaming about seeds and soil and sun — and the crops to come. We are.

In the meantime, we can make real those dreams by choosing a seed that will connect thousands of Chicago gardeners — and at the same time encourage urban farming and healthy eating habits. For the fourth year, the One Seed Chicago project offers Chicago gardeners the chance to vote on their favorite vegetable seed then receive a free packet of the seed that gets the most votes.

“One Seed Chicago is uniting Chicago gardeners,” says Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace, the nonprofit urban land trust that started One Seed Chicago. “By planting a common seed, backyards, windowsills, community gardens and balconies across the City will be linked together in a season-long celebration of urban gardening and local eating.”

In partnership with GreenNet, Chicago's community greening coalition, One Seed Chicago selected the three vegetable seeds Chicagoans can choose among. Chicago celebrity chefs will provide recipe ideas for each of the three vegetables and voters are encouraged to share their own.

This year’s seed choices are eggplant, radish and swiss chard.

Voting continues until April 1, 2011. The winning seed will be unveiled at GreenNet’s annual Green and Growing Fair, April 30 from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. at the Garfield Park Conservatory. To vote, log onto the OneSeedChicago website.

While you're trying to decide, check out this amusing video:

Obama to sign Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Cassandra West

Michelle Obama

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will deliver remarks and the President will sign into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on Monday, Dec. 13.

Cabinet Secretaries, Congress members and advocacy group leaders who worked to promote and pass the Act with join the Obamas for the signing at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 aims to improve the quality of school breakfasts, lunches and other foods sold in schools and strengthening nutrition programs that serve young children, including WIC and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

The Obama administration has set a goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation, which Michelle Obama has championed through the Let’s Move! Initiative.

The event will be live streamed on the White House website.

Midterm elections could change federal agriculture policy

Cassandra West

Iowa farm By Susan Richardson Last week’s midterm elections swept dozens of conservative Republicans into the U.S. House of Representatives, giving the GOP a majority. So, what will be the effect of the election results on the Farm Bill, sustainable food initiatives and other agricultural issues? Following is a roundup of views and news from bloggers and ag experts about the potential impact:

"Passing a farm bill is going to be hard work. Since American farmers would otherwise have to compete against heavily subsidized counterparts in other nations, this has always been a necessary bipartisan effort. This has occurred on track in recent years despite the caterwauling on talk radio and on editorial pages. We’ll have to wait and see.” Texas Agriculture Talks

“U.S. lawmakers will face increasing pressure to constrain spending on farm subsidy programs, possibly as part of government-wide austerity, in the wake of large Republican gains in the mid-term elections.” DTN/The Progressive Farmer

“Forty-six seats that flipped from Democratic to Republican hands represent districts that rank in the top half of those that get federal subsidies, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. Those losses could have implications for the next farm bill. Mark Maslyn of the American Farm Bureau Federation worries that the Democrats who will join the House committee to fill empty seats may come from more urban and suburban districts and will be more interested in nutrition and environmental issues than farm programs. He’s also concerned that many of the fiscally conservative Republicans in the House could join up with more liberal Democrats to push for cuts in farm subsidies.” Des Moines Register/Greenfields blog

“Even before the outcome of the mid-term elections became clear, progressive reform of federal agriculture policy already faced steep hurdles -- most of them erected by the lobbying power of Big Ag interests. Now those hurdles are higher.” Grist

Federal grant helps Chicago fight childhood obesity

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

Long before First Lady Michelle Obama put childhood obesity in the national spotlight, the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children was working to combat this health epidemic.  Last week, the federal government recognized the organization’s work when it announced that it had awarded nearly $6 million to the Consortium, which partnered with the City of Chicago Public Health Department to apply for the funds.

The award is part of $31 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services to reduce obesity and smoking; the money comes from the new national health care law. 

“It’s a vote of confidence,” said Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, founder and medical and research director of the Consortium, which targets children up to 5 years old.  

Located at Children’s Memorial Hospital, the Consortium was founded eight years ago. Since then, the group has grown to include nearly 1000 organizations, mostly from Chicago. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to addressing obesity, enlisting schools, community groups, health professionals, parks officials and others. 

“There is no single reason for childhood obesity,” Christoffel said. “It was a perfect storm where there were changes all in the wrong direction: a car for every family, cheaper food, larger portions … you can go on and on.”

The Consortium also supports special obesity prevention programs in neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Englewood and Humboldt Park, low-income and communities of color where there is the greatest need for intervention. 

In the next month, the group will develop a plan for how to use the Health and Human Services funds. Under the grant criteria, the money must be used to create structures with "staying power," Christoffel said, and for efforts that focus on policy and environmental change. She said most of the money will go to community organizations working across the city; the Consortium will coordinate the efforts.

 In Chicago, obesity prevalence among children 3-7 years old is 22 percent, more than double that of US rates for similarly aged children, according to the Consortium. However, the prevalence of obesity among children entering local schools has decreased from 24 percent, or about 6,000 children, between 2004 and 2008.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC) suggest that obesity rates have stabilized nationwide, but health officials say policies and practices are not yet in place to reverse the epidemic -- and the rates are still staggering.  Seventeen percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 2-19 are obese – triple the rate of a generation ago, according to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). African-American and Latino children have the highest obesity rates.

Childhood obesity cost the nation upwards of $3 billion annually, the CDC reports, with children suffering from weight-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes. And obese children – those with a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex – are more likely to become obese adults.

A pediatrician who also has a Master's in Public Health, Christoffel has a long history of involvement in child nutrition, including founding the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children’s Memorial in 1982.  “I’ve been taking care of overweight kids for a long time,” she said. “The severity got worse, and at an early age. And it became increasingly apparent to me that we were not going to take proper care of them or reduce the rising rate of obesity unless we adopted a comprehensive approach.”

The announcement by Health and Human Services comes within days of the publication of the premier issue of Childhood Obesity Journal, published bimonthly by Mary Ann Liebert in collaboration with the American Association of Diabetes Educators, American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association and American Academy of Family Physicians.  The journal, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, reflects the growing national attention on childhood obesity.

CDC: Adults eating less fruit, not enough veggies

Cassandra West

Americans may be growing more vegetables in their back yards and community gardens, but most still don't eat enough vegetables, and fruit consumption is actually falling, according to a new government report released Thursday that shows a state by state breakdown. Vegetables

About one-third of adults in the U.S. had two or more servings of fruit or fruit juice a day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that last year. Those with the lowest body mass index also ate the most fruits and vegetables.

In 2009, an estimated 32.5 percent of U.S. adults consumed fruit two or more times per day, the CDC report shows, with the highest percentage in D.C. (40.2 percent) and the lowest in Oklahoma (18.1 percent). “The percentage of adults who consumed vegetables three or more times per day was 26.3 percent, with the highest percentage in Tennessee (33 percent) and the lowest in South Dakota (19.6 percent). Thus, no state met either of the Healthy People 2010 targets related to fruit and vegetable consumption among adults. Twelve states and D.C. had 35 percent to 45 percent of adults who consumed fruit two or more times per day, compared with no states that had 35 percent to 45 percent of adults who consumed vegetables three or more times per day.”

In Illinois, 32.4 percent of adults ate fruit two or more times a day, and 23.3 percent ate vegetables three or more times a day. In 2000, the figures were 33.3 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively.

The data come from a national telephone survey of 396,316 Americans.

Health officials say a diet high in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk for many leading causes of death and can play an important role in weight management.

The report didn’t ask people which fruits and vegetables they ate the most. But a CDC study published last year concluded that orange juice is the top source of fruit among U.S. adults and adolescents, and potatoes are the favorite vegetable, the Associated Press reported.

Add your input on America's Great Outdoors Initiative

Cassandra West

If you have time on Monday, Aug. 30 to attend this important event, you can offer input into President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative, a 21st Century agenda for conservation, recreation and connecting with the outdoors. Share your ideas with Amy Salzman, Associate Director for Policy Outreach, White House Council on Environmental Quality; Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Department of the Interior, and Harris Sherman, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the four questions guiding the America’s Great Outdoors initiative: 1. Challenges: What obstacles exist to conservation, recreation, or reconnecting people to the outdoors? 2. What works: What are the most effective strategies for conservation, recreation and reconnecting people to the outdoors? 3. Federal government role: How can the federal government be a more effective partner in helping to achieve conservation, recreation or reconnecting people to the outdoors? 4. Tools: What additional tools and resources would help make these efforts even more successful?

The forum is free and young people are strongly encouraged to attend.

MONDAY AUGUST 30, 5:30 The Field Museum 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive Chicago Simpson Theater (entry through West door)

If you can't attend a listening session , please join the conversation online at America's Great Outdoors.

Advocates for Urban Agriculture send a letter to Vilsack

Cassandra West

Seneca Kern (right) of We Farm America

Chicago’s Advocates for Urban Agriculture sent a letter this week to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in support of the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative.

The initiative is designed to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers, but some Republican senators have criticized it, saying it would hurt American families and rural farmers.

Quite the contrary, said AUA, in its letter to Vilsack. AUA members believe “that underserved and disinvested urban and rural communities can only benefit from support for local food production and sales. The Know your Food, Know your Farmers program increases the security of our food system by lowering the dependency of large single point of failure systems. We need to encourage different sizes of agricultural systems. Just as the rule of law is not well enforced with large centralized systems, food security is not well protected with only large centralized companies. Small and distributed must also be part of the mix.”

AUA is a coalition of organizations and individuals who practice and advocate for urban agriculture in the Chicago area. They’ve been building their network since 2002, and have seen the interest in urban agriculture expand greatly since then. AUA’s 300 members organize and manage sites and programs that affect thousands of Chicago residents by providing healthy food, education and training, and jobs, and by improving neighborhoods’ environment and quality of life.

AUA members also have prepared a plan for urban agriculture in Chicago, parts of which have been adopted by the city in its “Eat Local, Live Healthy” plan. They are currently advising Chicago’s process to create new urban agriculture zoning definitions and protocols. They also work closely with the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council to guarantee access to “culturally appropriate, nutritionally sound and affordable food that is grown using environmentally sustainable practices.”

Urban agriculture, AUA says, “will not meet the needs of all residents,” which is why it promotes the connection between urban communities and small rural farms in Illinois. State residents spend $48 billion on food annually, with more than 95 percent coming from outside the state, according to the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act.

“AUA envisions a flourishing food system that promotes urban agriculture in the Chicago area as an integral part of community economic development, food security, environmental sustainability, and overall quality of life for the region, and in which practitioners, organizations, and residents can reap the benefits,” the letter said.

The group extended an invitation to Vilsack to visit Chicago to tour some of the “vibrant urban farms and food production systems in the city.” It also urged the USDA to “continue to develop Know Your Farmer Know Your Food as a way to connect consumers with farmers in a way that will benefit both rural and urban farmers.”

Members of AUA who signed the letter are: Representatives of the Steering Committee of AUA

Ryan Anderson, Delta Institute Patsy Benveniste, Chicago Botanic Garden Chad Bliss, Cob Connections Martha Boyd, Angelic Organics Learning Center Carlos De Jesus, Puerto Rican Cultural Center Mark Earnest, WCPT Breanne Heath, Growing Home Ben Helphand, NeighborSpace Seneca Kern, We Farm America Kelly Larsen, Windy City Harvest Harry Rhodes, Growing Home Chuck Templeton Orrin Williams, Center for Urban Transformation

Sherrod case highlights struggles of black farmers

Cassandra West


By Susan Richardson

For black farmers who were part of the landmark discrimination settlement against the USDA in 1999, Shirley Sherrod’s story is a reminder that the federal agency has a long way to go to end a legacy of racial discrimination.  The farmers sued because the agency frequently denied loans and other financial support to black farmers.

Sherrod, a USDA official in Georgia, was fired and then asked to return to the USDA after it was revealed that her videotaped comments, in which she appeared to make racist statements, were taken out of context.  Many African American farmers hope the wrong done to Sherrod will draw attention to the fact that the Senate has refused to authorize $1.15 billion for thousands of black farmers left out of the original $2.3 billion settlement with the USDA.  The same week that Sherrod was thrown under the bus by an agency with a deplorable civil rights track record,  Senators fought along partisan lines about how to fund the last of the settlement payments.

Last week, the two black farm groups – the National Black Farmers Association and the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association – issued statements in support of Sherrod, linking her situation to the agency's outstanding discrimination claims.  

“Besides the U.S. Congress calling for the immediate reinstatement of Ms. Sherrod, it must set the example of leadership on justice and fairness by allowing the [discrimination case] and all outstanding civil rights claims at the USDA to be settled once and for all,” said Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, made similar remarks.  Some 16,000 farmers, including Boyd, received a share of  the first settlement, according to National Public Radio. Each farmer received $50,000 and debt forgiveness.  

Though Congress agreed to fund additional payments two years ago, including  to those who missed court filing deadlines  or were omitted from the 1999 settlement,  it never authorized the money.  The House recently approved $1.15 billion for the farmers and then sent the legislation to the Senate.  

The history of discrimination against black farmers is well documented.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he is committed to changing the agency’s “sordid” legacy.  In 1983, the Reagan administration shut down the USDA Office of Civil Rights; it did not reopen until 1996.  A study by USDA researchers in the 1990s found that black farmers received fewer dollars than whites for crop payments, disaster payments and loans.  And black farmers in the class-action suit said that some rural USDA loan officers tore up their applications in their presence. 

While all small-scale American farms are struggling for multiple reasons, black farmers have remained hardest hit, partly due to the history of segregation.  Discrimination by the USDA compounds laws and practices across the nation, and in the South, in particular, that were designed to drive blacks from their land.  According to research cited by the Institute for Southern Studies, black farm ownership declined dramatically in the last century, as the farmers were pushed off land by discriminatory policies and practices.  “In 1920, one out of seven U.S. farms were black run; by 1992, African Americans operated one out of 100 farms,” according to the institute.  

Last year Sherrod and her husband were among the farmers in a cooperative that received $13 million in the 1999 settlement.  Currently, the USDA has thousands of discrimination claims against it, including those filed by women, Native Americans and Latinos.  

As Sherrod noted, many farmers, regardless of color, need support. If anything can be gained from the wreckage of the past week, it should be fairness for black farmers and a renewed commitment to all farmers.

Learn more about black farmers' concerns: and

Watch a CNN interview with John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association:

Building an 'intentional community' around permaculture

Cassandra West

Estelle Carol at the composting pile in her yard. (Photo by Cassandra West)

As the local food movement grows, Chicago-area residents are developing more imaginative and creative ways to embrace it and make it work for them. Oak Park resident Estelle Carol is one of those people. An artist and designer, she wants to create an “intentional community” that revolves around transforming her suburban yard into a food producing urban garden by partnering with serious gardeners with knowledge of permaculture.

The gardeners Estelle seek can be a family or an unrelated group who are willing to take a long-term lease on the first-floor unit of the two-flat Estelle owns with her husband, Bob Simpson.

Intentional communities are not a new concept. They’re much like housing cooperatives. In the ’60s, they might have been called communes, but the central idea is a living arrangement where people strive together with a common vision.

“We’re doing it better than a commune,” Estelle says of her idea. “We’re doing it better than we did — my generation [from the ’60s]. I want to place it within a larger community that already exists.”

Estelle’s vision has at its core permaculture — a method that uses the interconnections of healthy eco-system as the model, she says. “If done correctly, permaculture allows gardeners to produce larger yields with less labor and money.”

Once the community is formed, it will research the best methods to create a model garden from which other urban and suburban homeowners can emulate or learn. Along the way, Estelle wants to document the community’s experiences on film. She’s looking to partner with a documentary film producer familiar with the cinema verité style. She also wants to provide an opportunity for young videographers and producers and expand on the collaborative business model she and her husband have developed for their communication and marketing firm, WebTrax Studio.

Estelle says she and Bob are “open to lots of different ways to combine food plants, decorative plants, outdoor people spaces and energy efficient living.” They especially welcome “cutting-edge permaculture ideas.”

Right now, the couple are “baby gardeners,” she says. “We have a little bit of knowledge.” What they do have in abundance is space — a huge 3-bedroom apartment with two full baths. What they are offering is “a wonderful opportunity for people wanting to start a sustainable garden design and consulting business” from which all can reap the benefits.

That’s the intention.

For more information, contact Estelle at 708.386.7197 or at

Chicago Public Schools to buy more produce from Illinois farmers

Cassandra West

The food service provider for Chicago Public Schools plans to increase the produce it buys from Illinois farmers. Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality is asking farmers to contract for $500,000 of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables in addition to the $1.8 million in local farm products purchased last year, the food service company said in a July 15 press release. “This program is fulfilling our commitment to meet the new nutritional standards adopted by the Chicago Board of Education to try and surpass the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ‘gold standard’ guidelines for school food,” said Louise Esaian, logistics officer for food service at Chicago Public Schools.

Chartwells-Thompson has teamed with, a Chicago-based non-profit that works to build and utilize local food systems.

“We want apples, peaches pears, broccoli, beans, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables grown by Illinois farmers to serve nearly 305,000 students in 481 schools every day,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president for Chartwells-Thompson. “This is good for local farmers and great for Chicago students.”

Root-Riot Madison Ave. Ribbon Cutting brings out Oak Park gardeners

Cassandra West

Root-Riot Urban Garden Network held a dedication and ribbon cutting on a beautiful, sunny July 10 Saturday morning. Many gardeners and supporters came out to see what has sprung up on the Madison Avenue lot. About 50 raised beds are now going strong, filled with many varieties of vegetables and flowers. There's also a lovely bird sanctuary, a composting bin and new tumbler.Here are some clips from the dedication:

This is what fresh looks like

Cassandra West

Freshly harvested red potatoes.

Those of us who are first-time urban farmers are always amazed at what we get from the soil. We go into this food-growing venture hopeful, expectant and not quite knowing what our efforts — and the Earth — will yield. So anything we harvest is a pleasure and a reward. I picked my first pepper recently and then the smallest onion I've ever seen. They were both beautiful to hold and behold. And I knew why. They both came from my garden.

This, I suspect, is how it will go throughout the growing season as I pull more food from my raised bed in Oak Park's new community garden, audaciously named Root Riot.

But what really made me appreciate the wonders of growing my own food was seeing Madiem Kawa dig a handful of red potatoes from her South Side garden. Kawa is also president of the Washington Park Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing greenspace in Washington Park (on Chicago's South Side) by preserving wildlife habitat and promoting beautification, environmental education, and cultural programs for the public.

Those potatoes, I just have to say, were sublime. Talk about looking good enough to eat. As I stood there gazing at them in Madiem's outstretched hand, I wanted to rinse them off, brush them with a little olive oil, wrap them in foil and roast them over a charcoal fire — and enjoy all the freshness of summer and what we can produce with a combination of hope, good soil and faith in our own ability as urban farmers.

USDA seeks public comments on new food guidelines

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking public comments through July 15 on the proposed 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the basis for important policy decisions about the Food Pyramid, school meals, the WIC Program, and other nutrition programs managed by the USDA.  Written by 13 prominent independent experts in nutrition and health, the proposed guidelines outline four major steps for Americans to improve their diet and health. At the top of the list is reducing caloric intake and increasing physical activity to combat obesity, which the expert advisory committee calls the "single greatest threat to public health in this century."

Other proposed actions steps are:

  • Eat more vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, eat more seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, and moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.
  • Cut out most added sugars and solid fats. Foods with added sugars and solid fats have unneeded calories and few, if any, nutrients. Also, reduce sodium and eat fewer refined grains, especially desserts.
  • Meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines require people to move more, which is important for overall health and helps burn calories to keep weight in check.
  • U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will submit final guidelines based on public input. To submit or review comments on the proposed guidelines, visit 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

    Philadelphia urban farm grows roots in old industrial neighborhood

    Cassandra West

    PHILADELPHIA — Farming in the city isn’t always a viable business model, those who attempt it will admit. Sometimes, though, an urban farmer gets it right—growing not only good, fresh food but building strong community ties along the way. That’s what Greensgrow Farm has done since opening a dozen years ago in one of this city's oldest industrial neighborhoods.

    Greensgrow started as a wholesale supplier of hydroponically grown salad greens to restaurants and as it has evolved “we’ve gone with the flow,” says Mary Steton Corboy, chief farm hand and co-founder. The original idea, she adds, grew from asking, “How can you grow on land deemed unusable and have a market for what it is you [are] selling?”

    Greensgrow took root on an EPA brownfield site, where a former galvanized steel plant once stood, proving that abandoned industrial land can be reclaimed and turned into a productive, thriving enterprise. Today the verdant three-acre urban farm includes a retail nursery, farmers’ market and a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Vegetables are grown in a 6,000-square-feet heated greenhouse and in raised beds with “French drains” and irrigation lines, and recently a green roof was added to the farm’s compost toilet.

    “What we’re trying to do is test the viability of urban agriculture and the concept,” Corboy told members of a tour group in town for the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders Forum, June 15-18. Part of the tour included lunch made from food produced at the farm — zucchini, squash, arugula, mixed greens, kale and strawberries.

    Bringing agriculture to an old industrial area populated with a high dropout rate and unemployment hasn’t been a walk in the park. When Greensgrow first arrived in the neighbor locals call Fishtown, it had “no interaction with people in the community,” Corboy said. “Then we started selling flowers and that opened the door to the community,” with people stopping by to ask questions about Greensgrow’s food.

    As the community connection strengthened, Greensgrow reached out more to its neighbors, educating them about food and giving them a voice in food production issues— what gets grown, whether or not pesticides, antibiotics or hormones are used in production.

    More recently, the farm started a low-income CSA, Corboy said. Participants, who must be eligible for food stamps, can use their stamps to pay for their CSA share. “The point with this low-income CSA is that we recognize completely who our market is, and we want to have deeper roots in our community. We want to get the people around us who really need the access to know that they have the access.”

    A cooking class and trips to farmers’ markets will be offered along with a CSA share, said Corboy, who is also a chef. “Our goal is that every single thing that is cooked in the cooking class has to be something that can be purchased in our Zip Code.”

    Learn more about Greensgrow.

    Documentary explores history of the School Lunch Program

    Cassandra West

    Lunch Line documentary clip By Susan Richardson Lunch Line, a new documentary about the history of the school lunch program, comes at  an important time. The 64-year-old  program is up for reauthorization by Congress as part of the Child Nutrition Act, bringing attention to what children are eating, where it comes from and the role of the federal government  in ushering food from farms to forks.

    The program, created in 1946 by President Harry Truman, is designed to reduce child hunger, but the nutritional value of school lunches has come under fire.  Critics say the lunches are loaded with high fat, high calorie and heavily processed food.  School lunch officials counter that it is too expensive to provide fresh food to millions of children.  With support from the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama's quest to reduce obesity is calling for more nutritional school lunches.  Given the attention surrounding the school lunch program, Lunch Line could influence the legislative debate about the future of a program that feeds millions of American children for about $2.68 per child per lunch and has historically enjoyed bipartisan support.

    Seeding Chicago interviewed Michael Graziano, co-director, with Ernie Park, of Lunch Line.

    What prompted you to make the film? Do you have an interest in the healthy food movement? I had read Wendell Berry and some Michael Pollan. But we are not food advocacy people. We are constantly looking for new ideas and read a story in The Chicago Reader  about The Organic School Project (a school-based pilot program that helps children make healthy food choices) and thought it might yield some interesting things about our society.  The plan was to make a verite film. We shot about a year of (the project) then realized the school lunch program begged bigger questions. We needed to talk to people who could  answer some of those big questions, like Susan Levine of the University of Illnois Chicago. who has written about school lunch policy.  Once we kind of broke the seal on putting interviews in,  we thought we  might as well talk to a range of people who  have been influential in the actual school lunch policy.

    Why should Americans care about school lunch policy? It's important for a few reasons.  A big thing that gets left out is that it's an important feeding program for 31 million kids, and most of them receive  one-half to two-thirds of their total caloric intake from school lunch per day.  For many of those kids school lunch is the only square meal they will get in a day, but it's so complicated now with obesity.  At the same time as you have hunger as a problem you also have obesity as a problem.

    What effect do you think the film will have on the school lunch debate? I think that our film illustrates how policy, politics, money, and nutritition all interact , and how they have interacted historically. And I think if you want to change a system you have to understand how it works. For all that Jamie Oliver did to raise awareness about problems of school lunch in terms of affecting substantive change, you wonder how successful it will be.  It may alienate some of the people you need to enroll to your cause to make the change.  If we can get people to understand the context or the back story, there is actually a lot more common ground (around the school lunch program) than people might realize.

    To organize a screening of the film, contact Watch a trailer of film.   For more information, visit

    A visit to Camden NJ's green soup kitchen

    Cassandra West

    CAMDEN, NJ -- On Tuesday, a group attending the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders Forum in Philadelphia visited the Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, N.J., which has provided hot, nutritious meals and other services to residents since 1976. In 2008, Cathedral Kitchen broke the emergency food service mold when it opened a 13,000-square-foot facility that also integrates medical and dental services. Camden faces daunting fresh food and poverty challenges.

    Seeding Chicago interviewed (video above) the Kitchen's executive director, Karen Talarico, and chef Jonathan Jernigan about Cathedral's unique approach to serving its community.