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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: community development

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

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.

Jeremy Nowak urges food funders to learn from practice

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson PHILADELPHIA -- Funders and philanthropies should be willing to learn from practice in creating models for access to healthy food, said Jeremy Nowak, president and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), speaking on the second day of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders conference in Philadelphia.

"Look at creating a live laboratory for financing and development of the food movement," said Nowak (left), whose nonprofit organization played a key role in developing Pennsylvania's Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The initiative has increased the number of grocers, farmers markets and other outlets for healthy food in underserved, low-income communities in Philadelphia and is a model for national legislation supported by the White House.

Funders must be willing to support practices and policies that sometimes lead to "dead ends," he said, adding that  "development is iterative." The alternative is to wait for a comprehensive approach that can result in inaction, he said.

Nowak's comments at Wednesday's session of the food funders conference focused on lessons from TRF's involvement in financing healthy food. The organization's work in the food movement began about six years ago, at the request of a leading state official who inquired about the  dearth of grocers in Philadelphia's inner-city communities.   (Nowak credited the Food Trust with generating interest in the issue.)  Grocers told Nowak that  the cost of doing business in the communities was steeper than in suburban areas because of  training, infrastructure and insurance.

Two critical lessons emerged from the experience: listening is critical to understanding the issues grocers face and demand has to be created for more healthy food choices. In the absence of healthy choices, Nowak said, people get used to what they are offered.

"Don't build down to the market; build up to the market," Nowak said.  The approach, he added, will help change consumer expectations in communities where both the quality of the food and the quality of service are often lacking.

TRF has helped create access to healthy food for more than 1 million people, including 80 markets, 25 of which are in Philadelphia.

The city is like many urban areas across the country. It suffers from a rise in vacant lots and abandoned properties and a declining population.  Philadelphia's food deserts reflect the demographic transformation of the city and its corresponding economic challenges.

Nowak said the key question is: "How do you catalyze economic growth in ways that advantage low-income people and places and get them into the mainstream economy?"

TRF's mission is to work in the "sweet spot between growth and equity," he said. The organization, which manages $700 million, views itself as a capital and information intermediary that can work in the "gray area between civics and markets," he said.

Learn more about the SAFSF conference.

Tom Tresser, Green Party candidate for Cook County Bd. president, talks urban agriculture

Cassandra West

Seeding Chicago met Tom Tresser, Green Party candidate for Cook County Board president, last Saturday following a live broadcast of “The Mike Nowak Show” (WCPT 820-AM), held at Third Unitarian Church in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. The special radio broadcast, called “Growing in Austin,” featured urban agriculture activists and community development groups, including CEDA (Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Inc.), from all around Chicago discussing ways to bring more green (veggies and cash) to under served city neighborhoods.

Tom Tresser, Green Party candidate for Cook County Board presidentGiven the topic, it was no surprise that a Green Party candidate was there. Tresser, who had turned out to listen to the panelists just as we had, caught our attention with the large green-and-white campaign button pinned to his shirt.

Unaware of Tresser’s campaign or his platform, we wanted to know what are his thoughts on making Chicago more agriculture friendly. “I’m here with members of the community who are talking about one thing, how to take vacant land, of which there are many in Chicago and across the county, and turn them into productive farms for food,” Tresser says.

Tresser, who lives in Lincoln Park, is an educator, organizer and activist. He teaches a course, “Acting Up: Using Theater and Technology for Social Change,” at DePaul University, and was lead organizer of No Games Chicago, which fought the city’s 2016 Olympics bid. He says a major part of his platform will focus on fighting corruption, but he also wants to address grass-roots community issues.

“We have a lot of problems in this county and across America in [access to] affordable food.” Tresser says. “People have no access to healthy of fresh food. We have obesity, rampant unemployment, and I think [urban agriculture] is a magic seed to deal with really quite a few pressing issues.”

The Mike Nowak show

Tresser’s campaign will open an office in Logan Square in the next few weeks, he says. In the meantime, he’s doing the homework to get a deeper understanding of urban agriculture’s possibilities. “I’m knitting together my facts right now,” he says. “I believe that candidates should get out and do the research themselves. I plan to unveil, probably in about a month, a major initiative that talks about turning vacant land inside the County of Cook into farm production using hard-to-employ people and then generating revenue and turning that food back into the community as well as into our institutions such as schools, prisons and hospitals. So it’s a win, win, win idea. That, I think, is quite exciting.”

Listen to podcasts of The Mike Nowak Show here.