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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Category: Urban Farming

Urban farm to provide “job training and fresh vegetables”

Cassandra West

A new 2.6-acre urban farm will be located on this tract of land in East Garfield Park. /Seeding Chicago photo

The ground breaking today was merely symbolic, but Chicago’s newest urban farm will be a reality in the next few months. That’s when Chicago FarmWorks begins producing food on a 2.6-acre site located along side the Metra/Union-Pacific railroad tracks in the East Garfield Park neighborhood.

Heartland Human Care Services, Inc. — a division of the anti-poverty organization Heartland Alliance — is one of several agencies behind Chicago FarmWorks. Heartland estimates that 24,000 pounds of produce will be grown in the first year. The farm also expects to create 90 transitional jobs in the first three years that will allow hard-to-employ people to get training and eventually full-time jobs.

“This is no ordinary farm,” said David Sinski, Heartland Human Care Services executive director. “This land will produce more than just fresh vegetables for Chicago families. It also will create jobs for those who are overcoming barriers to employment.” It will also give neighborhood children “a better understanding of agriculture and healthy eating.”

Chicago FarmWorks is being developed in partnership with Heartland Alliance, the City of Chicago, Wilbur Wright College, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, NeighborSpace and West Humboldt Park Development Council. When Chicago FarmWorks becomes fully operational, it will provide produce directly to the Greater Chicago Food Depository at wholesale prices. The farm also will grow flowers in hoop houses for sale to floral retailers at wholesale rates to create a more financially sustainable project.

“We have worked with Greater Chicago Food Depository to identify the vegetables most needed for local food pantries,” said Dave Snyder, Chicago FarmWorks manager. During the winter, the farm will produce cabbage, carrots, radishes and onions. Seedlings are already growing in a green house space that Christy Webber Landscapes has donated. Sweet potatoes, beets, cucumbers, beans, spinach, summer squash and peppers are planned for spring.

“Urban farms benefit communities in a variety of ways,” said Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace. “The rows of food growing on what had been vacant lots provides a beautiful inspiration to the neighborhood. It also provides very real job training and fresh vegetables."

Chicago FarmWorks hopes it can be catalyst to spur other economic development in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, where unemployment hovers around 35 percent.

Food+Justice=Democracy meets in Minneapolis Sept. 24-26

Cassandra West

Word cloud made with WordItOut

We're at the Food+Justice=Democracy conference sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis this week. Today started with an elder blessing by poet/activist/organizer Louis Alemayehu reading a beautiful poem reminding us that "The Holy Land is all the Earth." The first panel of the day, "African American Ways of Knowing land" is going on now with presentations by Professor Rose Brewer of the University of Minnesota and Malik Yakini, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Community Fellow. We'll be back with more posts later...

Urban Farming: Chicago style

Cassandra West

Urban farming has taken root all over this city of concrete sidewalks, glass skyscrapers and red-brick bungalows. It's not unusual to see vegetables growing in raised beds in community gardens on a barren stretch of Madison Street. Or to see a new farmers market open on neighborhood lot. Or a mobile produce market ambling down one of the city's liquor-store, fast-food laden streets. Or to come across chickens scratching outside their coops in a self-styled urban farmer's tiny back yard. That's urban farming Chicago style. It's happening and those who do it say it's here to stay.See it for yourself. Then perhaps you'll see yourself in these images of Chicagoans who are growing food in their own way.

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.

It's seed swap season around Chicago

Cassandra West

This is the time of year for seed swaps around Chicago. Several groups have swaps of all sorts planned this weekend and next. Chicago Botanic Garden Seed Swap Sunday, Feb. 26 2 to 5 p.m. Details: Featuring Diane Ott Whealy co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange and author of “Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver.” Diane will give a lecture and sign books from 2 to 3 p.m. Her presentation will be illustrated with photographs from her cottage–style garden at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm.

From 3 to 5 p.m. everyone is invited to bring saved seed or excess seed packets to participate in the two-hour exchange. You don’t need to bring seed to swap (taking seed home works, too) and there will be a variety of demonstrations on starting seeds, saving seeds, seed germination testing and more.


The Eco Collective seed swap Sunday Feb 26 2pm-5pm in Pilsen RSVP for the exact address $5 donation (benefits Eco Rooftop garden) Details: Come swap seeds with other gardeners to improve your garden's variety this spring & learn a couple of new things about growing. Bring seeds that you have saved over the growing season, “still viable” seeds that you have left over from last season, or new packs you've purchased for this season. And, bring a dish or drink to share with everyone, because snacks are always good.

The Peterson Garden Project annual seed swap Sunday, March 4 2 to 5 p.m Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Galter Pavilion Second Floor 5140 N. California Free admission Details: Trade your eggplant for zucchini, your cucumber for tomato. In addition to the seed exchange, there will also be opportunities to learn about planting, edible seeds, heirloom vegetables, and more. Peterson Garden Project volunteers will be on hand to discuss their three new community gardens for 2012. Details on sign-up to reserve garden plots will come mid-March; sign up for the Peterson Garden Project newsletter or follow their Facebook page for the latest information on the 2012 growing season.

Chicago ordinance paves way for Englewood urban farm

Cassandra West

The first urban farm developed under Chicago’s new urban agriculture ordinance broke ground Oct. 14 on a one-acre gravel-covered site in Englewood.

Growing Home Inc., which already operates a half-acre agricultural property nearby, will manage the farm and have it planted for the spring 2012 growing season. By next summer the vacant lot will be a verdant oasis of fresh produce in an area that’s often classified as a food desert. Residents of the South Side neighborhood will be able to purchase fresh tomatoes, okra and collard greens—the vegetables most in demand in that area, said Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home.

A decade-old social enterprise, Growing Home has worked for about a year to get a larger farm up and running, Rhodes said. He had wanted to see the new ordinance happen sooner, but its Sept. 8 passage made launching the Honore Street farm easier, he added.

About 50 activists, community leaders and urban agriculture supporters attended the groundbreaking ceremony, including philanthropist Barbara Rose; Martha Boyd, program director for Angelic Organics Learning Center, and researcher Mari Gallagher, who studies the impact of food deserts on urban communities.

Growing Home provides job training for homeless and other individuals who have faced employment challenges. It also partners with community organizations such as Teamwork Englewood, Chicago Community Trust, Boeing and Kennedy-King College to engage individuals and communities in growing food, understanding healthy eating and advocating for sustainable, healthy food systems.

“We’ve succeeded in bringing together many partners,” Rhodes said. “We created the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Taskforce. The goal of the taskforce is to create this urban agriculture district. This is the second farm. We want to see 10 farms within a couple of years. We want to see 50 farms here in Englewood.”

Rhodes expects that with the new farm, Growing Home will be able to expand its transitional jobs program. It could possibly grow to about 40 people and employ four full-time people, “creating 50 jobs a year with this site and other farms.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin attended the groundbreaking and the reception afterward at Growing Home’s Wood Street Farm less than a block away. He applauded efforts to bring more green to neighborhoods like Englewood, which has its share of vacant lots, desolate stretches and limited food and employment options.

“It’s amazing to me as you drive through these crowded, challenged neighborhoods and, bingo, there you have some terrific greenhouses and some other projects underway.”

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.


FAQs on proposed urban ag ordinance in Chicago

Cassandra West

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is moving along with plans to define urban agriculture in Chicago as it tries to get an ordinance passed by the City Council. In late July, the Mayor’s Office released an FAQ on urban agriculture and a document on urban farms (commercial) and community gardens (non-commercial).

One difference between an urban farm and a community garden will be size, according to the proposed ordinance. An urban farm would have no size limit, while a community garden would be limited to 25,000 square feet.

Here’s more on how Chicago would distinguish urban farms and gardens:

Urban Farms (Commercial) • Fully recognizes and allows urban farms and methods of food production indoors, outdoors, and on rooftops. Also allows sales. • Allows aquaponics (growing fish and plants together) and hydroponics. • There is no specific size limit on urban farms. • Rules around landscaping and fencing requirements in and around certain parking areas and outdoor work or storage areas are relaxed. May be required depending on location and the specific activity taking place. When required, type of fencing will be approved on case-by-case basis by DHED. • Urban farmers will have the option to work with the City in order to design screening surrounding outdoor areas and develop ways to meet parkway requirements. • Composting is allowed but limited only to the materials generated on site, and must be used on site. • Allows keeping of up to 5 beehives. Community Gardens (Non-commercial) • Legalizes sales of plants and produce grown on site so long as sales are secondary to the primary gardening activity or surplus produce. • Expands the size limit on all community gardens to 25,000 square feet. There is no size limit for community gardens in parks and open space districts. • Allows and clarifies rules about greenhouses, sheds, hoophouses, and farmstands as accessory uses of community gardens. The size limit on these is expanded to 575 square feet. • Composting is allowed but limited only to the materials generated on site, and must be used on site. • Allows keeping of up to 5 beehives.

Root Riot community gardeners' work day in Oak Park

Cassandra West

If you have a garden, you've got to work it. Every gardener knows that or will soon learn it. Root Riot, a community garden in Oak Park with approximately 50 beds, held a workday on July 16 to pull up weeds and put down wood chips. The garden even inaugurated its newly built table and benches, made of wood from an old Wisconsin barn. (Thanks, Stephanie's brother!)And, luckily for all, we finished the work done before the heatwave of 2011 arrived in full force. Check out this clip of our morning in the garden:

In thick of winter, seed swap season heats up

Cassandra West

The snow may keep coming down here in Chicago, but we know the growing season is coming, too. To help gardeners get ready, communities and organizations are hosting seed swaps this month. In the last few years, seed swaps have become popular in the U.S., and they’re growing trend in the U.K., where Seedy Sunday — UK's largest seed swap — took place Feb. 6 (also known as Super Bowl Sunday for many here).

“Seedy Sunday has blazed the trail for UK seed swaps over the past decade: it is the must-be-there event for seed swappers, conservers, developers and newcomers,” the event’s website says. “It exudes innovation, creativity and common sense. It shows up the idiocy of draconian seed laws and the Gene Giants’ restrictive practices: in this warming world we need to exchange more diversity of uncontaminated plants to secure future food. Seedy Sunday builds solidarity among all of us who respect our collective rights to save, sow, swap and sell seeds grown in our gardens and farms: it gives strength to seed law busters.”

If you’re in Chicago, though, and searching for a hard-to-find vegetable or flower seed, check out two upcoming seed swaps. Urban farmers and gardeners can exchange seeds of different varieties to enrich their gardens with more diversity.

Saturday, Feb. 12, from 10 a.m. till 12 p.m., Lurie Garden is hosting a seed swap on the first floor Garland Room of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Experienced seed savers/swappers and curious newbies are invited. Lurie Garden staff who will be on hand to provide seeds and tips for planting and germination. Representatives from One Seed Chicago also will be on hand for those who want to cast vote for one of this year’s seed choices. NeighorSpace has donated some seeds for the swap. So, even if you don't have seeds to swap you will not leave empty-handed. RSVP by calling the Lurie Garden at 312.742.8497 Space is limited.

Here are some tips for packaging seed saved in your garden to swap: *Package seeds in paper coin envelopes or plastic baggies. *Label seed packs with botanical and common name. *Five seed-per pack minimum for larger and common seeds. *Thirty seed-per pack minimum for smaller seeds. If you don't have small coin envelopes or want to buy little plastic baggies, you can use junk mail envelopes to hold your seeds.

On Sunday, Feb. 27 from 1 to 4 p.m., the Forest Park Community Garden Seed Swap & Seed Starting Demonstration will take place at the Park District of Forest Park, 7501 Harrison St. An RSVP is required because space is limited. Master gardener Debbie Kong will lead the seed starting demonstration. If you know of other seed swaps in the Chicago area, drop us a note and we'll help you spread the seeds, uh, the word.

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:

Krafting a campaign to support food gardens

Cassandra West

COMMENTARY By Susan Richardson

A recent story about Chicago-area Kraft Foods is simply too delicious to ignore. The world's second- largest food company - and maker of the nutritious Cheez Whiz (“Cheezy and Darn Proud of It!”) – is encouraging the consumers of its Triscuit wheat crackers to grow their own food. Some of you may have already used the seed packets inserted in 4 million Triscuit boxes beginning in March.

It appears that the food giant is cleverly trying to rebrand itself to court the rising home-grown food movement. In an attempt to reach its core audience -- the same 35 -year old- women who are down with First Mom Michelle Obama in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and restore nutrition to American diets -- Triscuit’s brand managers took a calculated leap, according to a story in OMMA: the Online Magazine of Media, Marketing and Advertising.  They decided to link the cracker’s simple, wholesome ingredients with the growing interest in food gardening. Kraft says Triscuit’s ingredients are wheat, salt and oil.  The article describes the decision as an “intuitive connection.”

So far, the marketing campaign – or “movement,” as Triscuit handlers call it – is working. The food giant, whose motto is “make today delicious,” teamed up with the nonprofit Urban Growing to launch community vegetable farms in 20 cities, OMMA reported. The company also created a garden at its office in Northfield, a Chicago suburb. Volunteers get to keep what they grow. Kraft launched a special web site that includes gardening tips. The site has had 260,000 unique visitors since the initiative was launched in March.  And Kraft snagged TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who has her own Triscuit-sponsored veggie garden.

Earlier this year, Kraft announced that it was imposing voluntary sodium limits in some of its food to help reduce galloping high-blood pressure rates among Americans. One foodie quoted in the OMMA article said Kraft’s investment in food gardens is a good thing, but most panned the move as disingenuous. We should recognize efforts by food companies to tweak unhealthy food manufacturing and processing. Like reducing sodium levels. But as a friend noted, are wheat, salt and oil really the only ingredients in Triscuits?

I mean Gee Whiz. Or should I say Cheez Whiz?

Weigh in on the Triscuit campaign. Comment below.

South Side gardens showcase Chicago's green thumbs

Cassandra West


City and suburban residents and foreign tourists piled into a yellow school bus Sat., July 31 for a tour of Chicago South Side’s urban farms and gardens. NeighorSpace presented the free tour in conjunction with the Chicago Park District. About 30 people got an up-close look at some of Chicago’s oldest and newest community gardens.

Departing from the Chicago Tourism Center Gallery at 72 E. Randolph, the tour’s first stop was the Rainbow Beach Victory Garden at 79th and South Lake Shore Drive. The lush garden sits on Park District land that once was the site of a 1940s victory garden. It’s just steps from Lake Michigan and nearby Rainbow Beach. In a neighborhood with few open green spaces, it’s a real oasis, populated with colorful summer flowers, native prairie plants and gardeners’ favorite vegetables —tomatoes, corn, okra, and many varieties of squash. About 40 community residents have plots in the garden.

The second stop was Growing Power’s Jackson Park Urban Farm and Community Allotment Garden, which is a real working farm that grows produce for local markets and restaurants. The farm employs 15 Chicago youth who are paid to help with composting, mulching, trellising and harvesting, Jonathan Berti, program coordinator said. Growing Power is the Milwaukee-based organization that’s recognized as a national leader in the urban agriculture and local foods movement.

Members of the Woodlawn community garden

Next on the tour was The Woodlawn Community Garden at 65th and Woodlawn. It occupies land owned by the nearby First Presbyterian Church. It has grown from under 39 community plots in 2009 to 116 this year, says garden coordinator Benjamin Murphy.

The final tour stop was the Brickyard Garden, set in between two three-story multifamily buildings on the 6100 block of South Woodlawn. The garden, started in 1975, is a dense, verdant patch that showcases what can come from urban gardener’s imaginations. A wooden open arbor is covered with green grape vines and offers a shady spot of gardeners and visitors. About 30 people took the sold-out tour, which was put on in association with an exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center on urban gardening: City is a Community Garden. The exhibition looks at urban gardens, vertical farming in the city, and urban chicken keepers through photographs, architectural drawings, and installations. The exhibit continues through Sept. 19, the Chicago Cultural Center, 72 E. Randolph.

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

Food gardens help revitalize Chicago's Englewood

Cassandra West

  Morgan Way of Peace Community Garden

By Susan Richardson

Within earshot of the Green Line on a residential street in Englewood, Dip Ross sells chips and soft drinks and locally grown produce at his food stand. Bell peppers, onions, corn and squash are sold along with beef nachos and snow cones.  The produce comes from Rowan Trees Farm, a block from the food stand.

The food stand and the farm were among 10 stops on a driving tour of community gardens and related sites organized by the Greater Englewood Garden Association on Saturday, July 17.  The tour was the first for the association, which seeks to highlight the many gardens where food and flowers are flourishing in the heat of the summer, and human ingenuity and creativity are slowly revitalizing a once formidable commercial area.  Association members hope the gardens sprouting up on vacant lots will help restore Englewood one lot, and one garden, at a time.

Englewood is a food desert and also has among the highest number of vacant lots in Chicago.  Supporters say gardens hold the promise of beautifying the area, increasing public safety, providing healthy food and putting empty lots back into productive use. For longtime residents such as Cordia Pugh, whose backyard garden was on the tour, the momentum around gardening can be channeled for lasting change. “We need to knit together this energy and put an end to the food desert,” she said.

Jenice Sanders, director of Educational Institute, a social service organization in Englewood, is working with area youth and seniors to complete a garden on West 59th Street that will be a “safe haven” for seniors.  This intergenerational effort can help heal the divisions between young and old, she said, adding that it is important to “rebuild the trust seniors have lost with youth.” 

The senior haven garden also has another function, Sanders said: It will provide a place where seniors raising their grandchildren can bring them to play. The garden will have a sand lot for children and tables where grandparents can play chess and checkers, she said.

Sanders is investing her own money in the effort, with technical support from Openlands, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region. The non-profit is working closely with the Greater Englewood Garden Association and other groups in the community to create a comprehensive plan for the use of open space.  Julie Samuels of Openlands helped coordinate Saturday's tour.

City of Chicago planning officials are discussing whether to designate Englewood as an urban agriculture corridor, which could, over time, result in a flurry of green-related development, including a new crop of neighborhood entrepreneurs.   The recent opening of the Heritage Station Community Garden is considered a prime example of the potential of gardens to address multiple issues in the community, while telling the story of Englewood’s illustrious past.  The station, at 549 W. 63th Street, is next to an affordable housing complex and near Kennedy-King Community College and the site of a railroad stop for African Americans who came to the city during the Great Migration.

Surveying the neighborhood she has called home off and on since 1959, Pugh said Englewood began to decline with urban renewal plans in the ‘60s.  The city razed blocks under the auspices of rebuilding, but that never happened. “This community has been scorched by a lack of engagement,” she said. “How are [residents] supposed to feel good about that?”

The current foreclosure crisis has added salt to the neighborhood’s wounds. On her block alone, there have been five foreclosures this year, she said, pointing to the vacant houses on her well-manicured street.  Gardens are a means to put empty lots to good use, she said.

Among the stops on Saturday’s tour was a community garden built in the foundation of an abandoned building in the 5900 block of South Winchester.  This is the first year for the garden, said Jenna Austin, block club president, pointing to the collard greens and other vegetables growing in the space. Residents, including neighborhood youth, helped to create the garden in an effort to beautify a block littered with several empty lots.

Not far from Austin’s neighborhood, Jean Carter-Hill, executive director of Imagine Englewood if, helped create a flower garden behind Nicholson Elementary Math and Science School at 6006 South Peoria. Brightly colored flowers shimmered in the sunlight in the tranquil space behind the school, and benches and tables are arranged under an arbor. 

The garden is the site of a high school that was demolished years ago. Carter-Hill and others approached Mayor Richard Daley about taking over the space, which is on land owned by Chicago Public Schools.  Her goal is to integrate the garden into Nicholson’s curriculum.

For now, she is focusing on educating area youth about the value of the garden. Like other gardens in Englewood, some youth have pulled up flowers and plants and taken or destroyed gardening tools. With time and education, she said, such problems become less frequent.

Joining the tour was State Rep. Esther Golar, 6th District, who became involved in gardening in response to a vacant lot on her street that was “an eyesore."  Her district does not include Englewood, but after training with Openlands, she became a supporter of gardens as a tool to revitalize communities that have suffered from disinvestment. She is eager to work with other elected officials and residents to change the face of Englewood and other communities. “We need to beautify this area,” Golar said.

The Greater Englewood Garden Association meets monthly. Contact Julie Samuels at, or call her at 312-863-6256.

Watch a slide show of the tour: Greater-Englewood-Community-Garden-Tour

More informaton about Heritage Station: Heritage Station Community Garden opens in Englewood

Summer at the Hull-House Farm: Episode 3

Cassandra West

We're back with our latest episode on the Hull-House Heirloom Farm, located at the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. When we checked in July 1 with farm director Ryan Beck, he was in the middle of talking with a group of students visiting from Northwestern University, explaining the rewards and challenges of managing an urban farm.

On this day, we could see just how much the vegetables had exploded since our last visit. Summer greens were at their peak, ready for harvesting, which Ryan said takes a lot of his time now. Butterflies and bees were busy in the garden, and the sun was high in the sky, generating lots of good summertime growing heat.

In this episode, we talk with one of the farm's volunteers, a visiting students, and, of course, Ryan, who was trying his best to beat the heat and stay on top of his booming crops.

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.

Will Allen on the urban farm revolution

Cassandra West

CHICAGO — Even if you know only a little about urban agriculture, you’ve probably heard of Will Allen, the nation’s foremost local food movement leader and advocate. Allen, who founded the Milwaukee-based urban farm and education center Growing Power Inc., was in Chicago at Fourth Presbyterian Church Thursday (June 24) evening to talk about his good food movement, which is “really about social justice,” he says.

Allen's presentation, titled “The Urban Farm Revolution: Growing Power and the Importance of Sustainable Local Food Production,” was an overview of Growing Power’s work since 1995 as a not-for-profit training center that focuses on urban agriculture methods and building community food security systems. He also talked about his organization’s work in Chicago, specifically a community outreach project and collaboration with Fourth Church called Chicago Lights Urban Farm.

Growing Power helped establish the urban farm (444 W. Chicago Ave.), which this year expanded to become an urban farm with year-round food production. The farm provides access to affordable organic produce and nutrition education and promotes economic development.

“All should have access to safe, affordable, nutritious food at all times,” Allen said before presenting a slideshow on Growing Power’s numerous projects in Milwaukee and around the world. He said his mission and vision are to bring people together, and “one of the best ways to bring people together is around food…that’s when wonderful things happen.”

Allen is an innovator in composting, vermicomposting (using worms to refine and fertilize compost) and aquaponics (growing fish and food plants in a closed system). Perhaps his strongest message Thursday was the importance of rethinking how and where food is grown. Straight-faced and serious, he declared that food can grow on asphalt. Several of his slides showed images of vegetable-laden soil mounds that Growing Power has installed on top of hard-surface urban lots.

Of the food we consume, 99 percent of it is “shipped in,” Allen said. “If we had local food production, we’d create a lot of jobs.” That’s really the social justice component of what Allen calls the good food movement.

Donnell Williams

Community organizer Donnell Williams, who came out to meet and hear Allen, told Seeding Chicago he wants to change how residents in his Roseland neighborhood access healthy food. He and others are starting a farmers market along with a local church. But his chief concern is to end food deserts and seek ways to bring in food-related jobs that can help "sustain the community," he said.

Food funders gather in Philadelphia to discuss urban agriculture

Cassandra West

Awbury Arboretum in Germantown By Susan Richardson

PHILADELPHIA -- The 8th Annual Forum of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders began with a reminder of how far the food movement has come since the group first met in 2003.  Thirty people attended SAFSF's inaugural conference in San Francisco; 155 people are attending  this year's conference in Philadelphia, said Executive Director Virginia Clarke on Tuesday, the first day of the event.

The rising interest mirrors the growing national conversation about urban agriculture, Clarke said. Citing a recent article by food guru Michael Pollan comparing the food movement to a "big lumpy tent," she said the movement's diverse participants, including lawyers, urban planners and designers, and philanthropists, can learn from each other despite differences.

The food movement has taken off, said Greg Horner, a program officer at the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston and moderator of the opening plenary. He noted several examples, from the federal government's support for an office of urban agriculture within the U. S. Department of Agriculture to increased support for food initiatives by funders.

The panelists for the opening plenary, "Shall We Dance? How New Partners Are Helping to Build a Stronger Food System for All," reflected the range of interests coalescing around the food movement, including social equity, urban design and planning, and health and environmental protection.

Tour guide Joan Reilly, senior director Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Panelists were Kimberley Hodgson, manager of the Planning and Community Health Research Center at the American Planning Association; Maria Salgado, programs director of Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, Mass.; and Jason McLennan, an architect and CEO of Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Emphasizing that urban agriculture is about more than food, Hodgson presented an overview of  initiatives across the country, from farms to community gardens to food banks.  Urban agriculture can help build communities, provide skills training and a recent survey states that it can increase property values in the surrounding neighborhood.  To succeed, urban communities have to overcome some risks, including soil and water contamination, she said.  Raised beds may make it possible to grow healthy food in these communities, but contaminants such as lead, zinc, and chromium can still negatively effect children who play in gardens.

Cities such as Cleveland are increasingly seeing the benefit of urban agriculture for economic development.  In conjunction with Cuyahoga County, the city is tapping into agriculture to create new jobs and businesses, Hodgson said.  The city has a goal to create one community garden per one-quarter square mile.  Cleveland changed its zoning ordinance to create an urban agriculture category, and allows residents to keep small animals such as pigs and chickens.

Salgado discussed how urban agriculture can help build social equity, using examples from Nuestras Raices' work in Holyoke.  The city has the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans of any city outside of the island and also ranks among the poorest cities in the country.  Asthma and obesity are staggering.  "You can't look at urban blight in silos," she said, adding that a "systemic" approach is necessary.

Formed a year ago, Nuestras Raices seeks to address these issues through developing jobs and businesses geared toward urban agriculture and energy conservation.  The organization has developed 10 community gardens with 100 families. It has a green jobs training program for youth, some of whom are working to complete their GEDs. And it plans to open a store that specializes in pork (or a Lechonera), which is popular in the community.

Nuestras Raices (Our Roots, in English) also seeks to grow a heritage: Puerto Rico's agricultural tradition.  Many of the younger generation have rejected it, Salgado said, viewing farming as a "stigma" and moving backwards, rather than a way to make a living.

McLennan, a leading international green building architect, explored how sustainable development can reinforce urban agriculture. He called for re-establishing the relationship between cities and food production, which was lost with the evolution of the modern city.  Citing films such as "Mad Max" and "Blade Runner," and cartoons such as "The Jetsons,"  McLennan said Americans have a vision of the future where they live in very dense settings removed from natural space and get their food by pushing a button.

McClennan said The Living City Design Competition, sponsored by the International Living Building Institute, supports efforts to create more sustainable cities.

With 40,000 vacant lots and a population that has dropped significantly in the last decade, Philadelphia is an example of how a city can tap into urban agriculture to create new economic opportunities.  Following the opening plenary, conference participants spent the afternoon touring urban agriculture projects in the area.

The conference continues through Friday.  For resources and to learn more about the panelists, visit the SAFSF website.