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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: Urban Farming

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.”

Suburban gardener maximizes her space for growing food

Cassandra West

Debbie slider

Master gardener Debbie Kong

Debbie Kong, a master gardener and gardening educator in Chicago's western suburbs, gave us a tour recently of her spread. Debbie decided this year to expand her “farmette,” as we fondly refer to her garden, and use more of her land to grow food. She and her daughter, who's known as Little Green Girl, worked hard this year to grow as much food in as little space as possible, she says.

Debbie planted her garden thoughtfully, planning every square foot like an architect trying to get the maximum use from a small lot on which to erect a tall building. To do that, she took advantage of some vertical farming concepts. And what is she growing? Watermelons, potatoes, strawberries, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces and a variety of rabbit-repelling plants.

Here’s a tour of one section of her urban farm:

A tour of Debbie's garden from Cassandra West on Vimeo.

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:

Healthy food hub opens at Chicago's Malcolm X College

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson Less than a year after opening its second food hub in Chicago, Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living recently opened its third hub at Malcolm X College on the city’s West Side.

Through biweekly market days, the hub connects residents with fresh produce from regional and national farmers. The Center has food hubs at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School and the medical offices of Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter, who, with her husband, Fred Carter (above), founded the Center. The Shabazz food hub was launched last November.

“We thought Malcolm X College and Betty Shabazz Charter School would make a perfect remarriage,” said Carter, noting that the namesakes of the institutions were married. “And the college’s commitment to the community is very strong.”

Part of the City College System, Malcolm X has an allied health program, which complements the Center's mission, and the campus is located in “the heart of a very serious food desert,” Carter said.

Black Oaks is an eco-campus and farm that seeks to restore the link between African-Americans and their agrarian past, encourage collective economics and promote health and locally grown food. Located in Pembroke Township, a historically black farming community about an hour from Chicago, the Center sponsors training sessions for students and others, teaching them about composting and growing their own food and the politics and history of food production and distribution.

Ghingo W. Brooks, the president of Malcolm X College, has been visiting the Center with his son for several months as part of a rites of passage program. The boys work in the garden and learn about sustainability.

Wright Carter said bringing the food hub to Malcolm X College was part of the president's vision to help address the food desert. However, the college does not have money to allocate to the food hub at this point.

There is also another connection between the college and the Center: Wright Carter teaches a nutrition class at Malcolm X. Her students are required to help out on market days, which offer fresh produce from Pembroke farmers and other farmers across the US. There are also cooking demonstrations to show people how to prepare the food in a healthy way.

The market is the first step in building a base for membership in the new food hub, Wright Carter said.

“The market is an introduction to the whole concept of solutions to the food desert coming from within the food desert,” she said. “These are new ideas for a lot of people, but having the market is something that everybody understands.”

The college has also asked Black Oaks to help it establish a rooftop garden on top of the sprawling building that houses the campus, as well as gardens in its atriums, which will be connected to biology and pharmaceutical studies.

Carter said it is fitting that the newest food hub is tied to a college: “It’s educating the public and informing people that there are other [food] options. “

WHEN: Market Days are twice a month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren St.

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.

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.

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.

USDA Report: Local Food Markets Growing, Effects on Health Still Unclear

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson Farmers markets and other  direct sales of produce to consumers account for a small, but growing, share of U.S. agricultural production, according to a new report by the Economic Research Service, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  "For smaller farms, direct marketing to consumers accounts for a higher percentage of their sales than for larger farms," according to the report.    But researchers are still unclear what impact the healthier food options are having on improved nutrition in communities.  The report, titled Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues," also finds that there is insufficient research to determine the effect of locally grown food on energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions.  

Key findings of the report include

  • Federal, state, and local government programs increasingly support local food systems.
  • Production of locally marketed food is more likely to occur on small farms located in or near metropolitan counties. 
  • The number of farmers’ markets rose to 5,274 in 2009, up from 2,756 in 1998 and 1,755 in 1994, according to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
  • There are  few studies on the impact of local food markets on economic development, health, or environmental quality. But research suggests that expanding local food systems can increase employment and income in communities.

GREEN FESTIVAL REPORT: Benefiting from the Green Economy

Cassandra West


By Susan Richardson

Panelists at Good Jobs/Green Jobs at the Green Festival

As Nicholas Lemann explains in The Promised Land, the advent of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1940s displaced black sharecroppers, adding to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North. Technological changes have always had an economic, social and racial impact.  Today, as we face another economic shift – this time from an energy inefficient industrial-based economy to a more green-collar economy –  advocates want to ensure that people of color do not become the sharecroppers of the new economy. 

The issue was raised by an audience member at the "Good Jobs/Green Jobs" panel sponsored by Blacks in Green (BIG) at this weekend’s Green Festival.  The panel took aim at how to create economic opportunity in communities that have been damaged by disinvestment and have seen job programs come and go. In the African-American community, unemployment figures far outpace the national average.  As several panelists stated on Saturday, there is a need for jobs, but not jobs that are “a bridge to nowhere,” as BIG’s Naomi Davis said. Rather, there is a need for well-paying, skilled jobs, and, more important,  business ownership in the green economy. 

Linking stewardship of the physical environment to the “more built environment,” as Terry Keleher, of Applied Research Center, said, is critical to help communities of color benefit from green-related opportunities. His organization has created a “Green Equity Tool Kit," outlining principles, standards and models for creating job programs and opportunities.  Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward), a former state representative, talked about a state-sponsored weatherization program that will allow urban residents to be trained in caulking, weather-stripping and other skills to help make residences more energy efficient. He describes the program as a “ladder to opportunity.” 

Former Chicago City Council Member Manny Flores emphasized that green advocates working in communities of color don’t have to wait for the government to act on their behalf. Economic opportunities have come about “because people like us have banned together to take advantage of opportunities,” Flores said, adding that neighborhoods should be “laboratories of innovation,” where new green enterprises can be incubated.

Austin Polytechnical Academy & Center for Polytechnical Education is taking that approach.  The Center’s Erica Swinney-Stein explained how the school on Chicago’s West Side trains youth to work for and own advanced manufacturing companies. There are several companies that occupy very specific niches -- for example, providing parts for wind turbines or hybrid cars – that cannot find qualified employees. Some of the businesses end up closing because they cannot find anyone to replace the aging owners, Swinney-Stein said. Austin Polytechnical isn’t just teaching kids skills, the school is also teaching them to “think entrepreneurially,” she said. 

That will help people of color become the owners, rather than the sharecroppers, in the green economy.

Financing Local Food: 'Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is'

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson From support for supermarkets in neighborhoods with more liquor stores than healthy food choices to efforts to increase the number of USDA certified organic poultry processors, philanthropic organizations are increasingly taking part in a growing movement for sustainable agriculture and access to healthy food. 

 “This is a time of convergence,” said Karen Lehman, director of Fresh Taste, a Chicago-based collaborative supported by area foundations that encourages diverse local agriculture and healthy eating in Illinois. 

Last week, Lehman moderated a panel on food finance at the PRI Makers  National Conference in Chicago, a group of foundations and other funders that provide low-interest loans and other creative financing for charitable purposes.

Though food finance is still an unknown for most foundations, the panel discussion, titled “Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Local Food Finance,” underscored the rising profile of food issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  Panelists shared experiences in financing local food initiatives, discussed the importance of building the capacity of organizations to execute food-related projects and emphasized the need to grow efforts in communities of color, where food financing can potentially have a great impact on public health and economic development.

News coverage about food recalls, First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to combat childhood obesity, and the spread of community gardens as a tool for both revitalizing neighborhoods and building community have all increased public awareness about what Americans eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced.  At the PRI session, almost everyone raised their hand when asked if they had seen the documentary Food, Inc., which skewers the food manufacturing industry. 

But today’s tipping point in terms of food awareness is the result of years of labor by grass-root organizations to bring public health, environmental, social justice, and economic development concerns together around the food delivery system. “These issues are in the spotlight as never before,” according to the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, which is holding its annual conference in Philadelphia June 15-18.  “Efforts over the past decades helped sow the ground from which today’s opportunities have grown. But what next?”

 Under the theme of “Shaking it Up, Making It Last: A Real Food System for All,” the conference will explore issues including cross-disciplinary efforts to build community health through urban agriculture; the challenges of making healthy food accessible to everyone; financing local food initiatives, and changing the certification system for domestic agriculture.  In addition, participants will tour various project sites in and around Philadelphia, including food-producing farms and a community garden built on abandoned inner-city lots.  

A keynote speaker will be Jeremy Nowak, founder and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund, which was instrumental in financing the first grocer in West Philadelphia in years.  The Fund worked on behalf of Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a model for the Obama administration’s $400 million National Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which could provide support for grocery stores, farmers markets and other efforts to provide healthy food in underserved communities. In February, the First Lady visited a North Philadelphia grocery store supported by the state’s fresh food financing initiative in conjunction with the launch of her campaign against childhood obesity. 

The focus of the Sustainable Agriculture Funders conference is to tap into the momentum around food issues to create a national food system that better serves public health.

For more information about the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, visit

Bee Balm buzz at Garfield Conservatory's Green and Growing Fair

Cassandra West

Bee balm is Chicago seed of the year

We met Mr. Brown Thumb (shy guy wouldn’t let us take his photo) and many other urban gardeners and gardening enthusiasts at Saturday’s Green & Growing Fair at Garfield Park Conservatory. More evidence, we see, that urban agriculture’s roots are getting deeper.

You don’t hear the word wholesome much these days, but that’s the best word to describe the vibe at the fair. What’s more wholesome than people coming together to learn and share the goodness of soil, sun and the work of human hands? From kids to grandparents, everyone found something to indulge his or her green and growing interests.

We saw lots of kids poking their fingers in rich, brown dirt--or as gardeners call it, soil. Several urban farming enterprises--Grand Street Gardens, Growing Home, Inc., Nichols Farm & Orchard-- were on hand selling fresh, locally grown produce. Scattered throughout the conservatory were demonstration stations on composting, beekeeping, tool sharpening and making your own biodegradable plant pots.

The greenest of green came out, we think, to get a packet of the Seed of the Year, chosen in an annual online contest. The winning flower or vegetable ends up being the focus of a season-long celebration. One Seed Chicago, an urban greening project in partnership with NeighborSpace and GreeNet, sponsors the contest.

And the winner is…Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), a native perennial flower of Illinois that blooms in mid-summer with slender and long-tapering leaves. Bee balm—also called “Oswego Tea,” wild bergamot or horsemint—is the natural source of the antiseptic thymol, the primary active ingredient in many mouthwashes. You can get tips on growing bee balm at

Three employees of Windy City HarvestIn the fair’s marketplace, we met vendors and exhibitors from around the region, some selling their products or produce, others stocked with informational handouts.

We chatted with a high-energy and friendly crew from the Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest, an organic vegetable and plant production enterprise that provides instruction in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture. They were selling chard, collards, kale, mixed salad greens and super fresh and fragrant green onions.

natural cleaning and growing products

We talked with Beth and Jonas Phillips of Green Generations about their line of natural cleaning and agricultural products for a variety of applications. They told us their products are free of harmful toxins or synthetic compounds and are 100% natural and safe for the environment as well as the people who use them.

We got a cilantro seedling from Robin Schirmer of Tomato Mountain Organic Farm, which has a CSA that delivers certified organic produce to Chicago, suburban Cook and collar counties. Deliveries start June 1.

Seneca Kern, co-founder of We Farm America, was digging deep into his knowledge base, giving on-the-spot instructions on setting up back yard vegetable plots. For one interested couple, he sketched a layout on the back of a business card.We Farm America

Jennifer Borchardt of Harvest Moon Farms, a Wisconsin-based organic heirloom vegetable grower, told us about their Farm to School program, in which they visit schools and give students an introduction to farming. Jennifer and her husband, Bob, are featured in an April 25 Chicago Tribune story on the expanding community supported agriculture movement.

Of course, there were many more vendors and exhibitors we just didn’t have time to meet. But, be assured, the Chicagoland farming community is green—and growing.

Looking for Chicago-area urban ag experts, speakers

Cassandra West

Chicago community garden in Woodlawn 2009 Seeding Chicago wants to know who are the urban agriculture experts out there. Can you write or speak about various topics in urban farming? Can you discuss soil preparation and testing, growing and harvesting techniques, composting, garden design, pest control, irrigation practices or any other topics related to growing food in the city? If so, let us know who you are. We're compiling a list of speakers and experts we can feature in upcoming posts. And, we want to make a resource list available to our readers, so they'll know where to turn and whom to trust when they have gardening questions. Send name and contact info to:


A garden grew in Woodlawn...and produced this blog

Cassandra West

Seeding Chicago grew from many long dinner conversations between two friends in summer 2009. One friend, Susan, was a new urban farmer, excited by the prospect of growing her favorite vegetables on the 10 x 10 plot she rented in the Woodlawn Community Garden. The other friend, Cassandra, was intrigued by the idea of growing food on a city block and would drive from the suburbs every few weeks to check out Susan’s crop and photograph its progress.

The more time the two friends spent at the community garden, the more they both realized that something far bigger than their fascination with urban farming was taking shape. Chicago was becoming a new epicenter for the burgeoning urban farming movement. Aspiring farmers in neighborhoods from Avondale to Logan Square to Woodlawn were planting the early seeds of a movement, which, now we see, is spreading like wild flowers.

We expect this year's growing season to be even more bountiful than the last.

Chicago's green movement springs from the seeds of hope

Cassandra West

I grew up a city kid, knowing more about concrete playgrounds than I did about lush, expansive lawns. But I was endlessly fascinated with almost anything that grew from the ground. Flowers, weeds, trees, fruits. One summer I attempted to grow watermelon in a large pot. That experiment, needless to say, didn't work out. Even vegetables were fascinating marvels of the photosynthesis process I wanted to understand. Eating them was a different story, and I frowned a lot when they showed up on my plate. Leafy, green collard, turnip, mustard and spinach greens were staples in my mom’s cooking, and we always had them. They were earthly mysteries, grown--to my knowledge--by only one neighbor we knew. The vegetables my mom bought at the little neighborhood grocery store obviously were imported from away.

Ask me today about greens, and I still marvel at how they burst through thick soil and spread their giant leaves in verdant bunches. Today, I actually know from where greens come. More of the greens we eat are grown locally. Neighbors and friends are growing vegetables in their back yards or in community gardens. Or, we’re getting our greens at farmers’ markets, freshly picked with puffs of dirt still clinging to their roots.

We’re returning to the land again. People around Chicago and many other urban areas are rediscovering—or discovering for the first time—the power of growing their own food. Of taking control of their diets and food distribution. This is huge. And it needs to bigger. Not bigger in a way that big corporations control and monopolize markets. I mean bigger in a way that more local individuals and cooperatives can meet the food and economic needs of their communities.

The movement is taking hold. People committed to developing new systems of sustainability are spreading it. People who want to bring a fresh, home-grown vitality to communities long overdue for real and serious economic development and empowerment. Seeding Chicago will be your guide to this "new" urban renewal that’s taking place. This is one renaissance you don’t want to miss.

--Cassandra West, co-editor, Seeding Chicago