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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: healthy eating

Obama to sign Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Cassandra West

Michelle Obama

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

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

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

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

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

Federal grant helps Chicago fight childhood obesity

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USDA will expand support for school food gardens

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson Just in time for the beginning of the school year, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a $1 million pilot program to develop and manage community gardens at high-poverty schools in five states. Funded through the National School Lunch Act, the program targets schools where 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals.

Public and not-for-profit organizations are encouraged to apply for grant funding for the pilot program. The deadline for applications is November 8, 2010.

The goal is to teach youth about agriculture production, diet and nutrition. Vilsack said the program will help kids and their families make healthier choices and encourage schools to prepare healthier meals by using the produce grown by students.

"Grass roots community gardens and agriculture programs have great promise for teaching our kids about food production and nutrition at the local level," Vilsack said. "Learning where food comes from and what fresh foods taste like, and the pride of growing and serving vegetables and fruits that grew through your own effort, are life-changing experiences."

The pilot comes as Congress considers improvements to the Child Nutrition Act, which includes school-based food and nutrition programs that feed 32 million children a day. Designed as anti-hunger initiatives, school breakfast and lunch programs have been criticized in recent years because the meals are heavy on processed foods, which have limited nutritional value and contribute to the nation's soaring childhood obesity rates.

Some school districts, including the Chicago Public Schools, have attempted to provide healthier school fare through partnerships with local organic food growers. But school officials say it is too expensive to take such programs districtwide.

Grant applications for the USDA school garden pilot program may be submitted by email to: or through The Request for Applications is available on-line at

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.

Advocates for Urban Agriculture send a letter to Vilsack

Cassandra West

Seneca Kern (right) of We Farm America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South African couple adds to continent's 'Green Revolution'

Cassandra West


By Susan Richardson

Grahamstown, South Africa --Zolile and Charlotte Mbali grow greens in discarded car tires.  They provide an excellent growing environment, the couple said, and help prevent soil erosion on their plot in the township of Clermont in the outer west of Durban.  And, best of all, the tires are free, said Charlotte.

Tires are not widely used in South Africa for planting, but they are more common elsewhere.

The Mbalis dream that their organic garden will contribute to economic opportunities -- not just healthier food -- for many of the unemployed youth in Clermont.  "Thousands of people in South Africa need unskilled work with their hands," said Charlotte. 

The couple also works with women who make slippers and shoes by hand, selling the items at festivals and other events. The Mbalis attended the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, where they promoted their garden with T-shirts, including one that reads "Support Township Gardening in South Africa."  The front of the T-shirt depicts the logo for the Mbalis' garden: a tire with greens growing in it.

Efforts to create an “African Green Revolution” – the theme of an upcoming conference in Ghana - are in progress across the continent to help bolster agricultural production through transforming  many small, subsistence farms into commercial ventures.  The goal of organizations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is to help  Africa become a food basket so it can feed itself and the world.

The Mbalis' focus is much smaller: grow food on their plot, provide work and ultimately become a destination for tourists who are interested in urban gardening. 

Zolile's mother left him the land near Durban when she died. Unlike other townships under apartheid, Clermont allowed black people to own land. His mother scraped together the money to buy the plot over several years, paying 1 pound a year for 12 years until she received the title in 1954. The garden is called the E. Mbali Garden in her memory.

In 2008, the Mbalis decided to use the land to stimulate more vegetable gardening in the township. The plot is deeply banked with a small double waterfall from a storm drain at one end, the Mbalis explained. An embankment of car tires was constructed to stop soil erosion.  Two gardeners who worked on the site were trained by a community gardening project.  A recent worker is a man who once squatted on the land. 

The Mbalis are trying to complete a building that will be used as a training center and a nursery and shop, they said. But they need additional funds to finish the structure. When they have finished construction and related work, they hope the garden will offer lunch for tourists, including various greens that grow wild.  The Mbalis plan to employ the same women who make the shoes to prepare the food her husband enjoyed as a child.

For the first 10 years of his life, Zolile lived on his grandfather's farm. His father was Xhosa from the Transkei region. The main staple dish in rural Transkei is gnushu- crushed maize kernals cooked with beans and a garnish of  homegrown pumpkin or wild greens, or whatever is in season.

Charlotte said people in rural areas and other places can still pick wild herbs that  "are quite nutritious. And they are all over Southern Africa, and they may be a better diet than the wild rush we are having to fast food here in South Africa. "

The E. Mbali Garden is located at 55 Twentieth St., Clermont. The Mbalis can be reached at

Documentary explores history of the School Lunch Program

Cassandra West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A visit to Camden NJ's green soup kitchen

Cassandra West

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

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

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.

Shabazz Food Hub connects farms and cities

Cassandra West

A young volunteer at Shabazz Food Hub Market Days By Susan Richardson The smell of mustard greens sautéed in olive oil with garlic fills the air in an auditorium at Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago.  People browse and buy produce and seedlings on a Saturday afternoon. It is Market Day at the Shabazz Food Hub.

Twice a month, hub members come to pick up preordered produce; others shop for greens, millet, papaya, sunflower seeds and other healthy foods.  And vendors sell items including homemade bean pies and organic juices, completing the menu.

The food hub is a project of the charter school and Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living, an eco-campus and farm in Pembroke Township that seeks to restore the link between African-Americans and their agrarian past, encourage collective economics and promote health and locally grown food.  Based in the 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.

Shabazz Food Hub is one of two food centers in Chicago sponsored by Black Oaks.  The other is run through the office of Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter, who, with her husband, Fred Carter, founded the Center.

“Ideally we want to have hubs that sort of dot the city and in different areas where there is not access to the food,” said Mike Strode, coordinator of the Shabazz Food Hub and parent of a daughter at the charter school.

U.S. consumers are growing more aware of the ills of processed foods and the dangers of a global food delivery system that ships vegetables, fruits and meat thousands of miles from their point of origin.  Transporting the food across the globe threatens the environment and also raises food security issues in an age of terrorism and volatile political conflicts.

In African-American communities, access to healthy food has become a public health, social justice and economic rights issue.  Studies show the link between access to healthy food and food-related illness. Blacks suffer from diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure at higher rates than whites, yet are least likely to have a quality grocer in their neighborhoods.

Research from Policy Link, an advocacy organization that works for food justice, reports that 8 percent of African -Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites.  A report by Policy Link and the Food Trust recommends developing retail outlets such as farmers’ markets, coops, farm stands, mobile vendors, and other community-supported agriculture programs to help address health disparities and encourage economic development.

At the Shabazz Charter School students are served vegetarian meals and food has long been a part of the educational process, said Strode.  Launched in November 2009,  the hub makes it easier for parents and the surrounding community to embrace a healthier diet. In addition, the Shabazz Food Hub connects with the school’s African-centered principles, in particular the concept of ujamaa, or collective economics, and the teachings of Maat. The principles are reflected among the volunteers at the Hub, who refer to each other as Baba (for men) and Mama (for women), terms that denote respect, and, most important,  community.

Market Day also includes cooking demonstrations that emphasize healthy preparation of healthy food.  Like millet with cinnamon, nutmeg and butter, and a new way to prepare chard, with natural peanut butter melted and tossed with tomato and onions.  Strode said the market and the demonstrations encourage people to try “foods they are not familiar with.”  And show  them how good healthy food can taste.

Coming Up: Seeding Chicago's visit to Black Oaks Center and interviews with Fred Carter and Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter.

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.

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

Action Alert – Protect Your Right to Know Which Foods Contain GMOs

Cassandra West

Please send this URGENT message to U.S. Government leaders to protect your right to know which foods are made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Click and send an email today to the Secretaries of State (Clinton), Agriculture (Vilsack), and Health and Human Services (Sebelius). Please try to do this before Wednesday, May 5, but don’t stop until they come around. They must stop U.S. negotiators at an international (Codex) conference from May 3-7, from pushing an agenda that could make it difficult for anyone, "anywhere in the world" to label foods as genetically modified (GM) – or even make "non-GMO claims on their product’s label."

The U.S. is taking the ridiculous and unscientific position that GMOs are not different from conventional foods, claiming labels that say GMO or non-GMO are misleading.

If they succeed at the meeting, the U.S. may then file lawsuits through the World Trade Organization against any country that implements mandatory labeling of GMOs, or even allows non-GMO claims on packages.

This Is a Grave Threat to the Non-GMO Tipping Point – We Must Push Back Now!

The growing evidence and concern about health dangers of GMOs is making waves. A renowned US Medical organization (American Academy of Environmental Medicine) called on doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. Consumers are seeking non-GMO brands, and the fastest growing claim among store brands in 2009 was “GMO-Free” (Neilson Survey). The trade journal "Supermarket News" predicts GMO concerns will erupt this year, specifically because consumers are now given choices by the new Non-GMO Shopping Guide website and the Non-GMO Project’s third-party verified standard for making non-GMO claims.

Most Americans (53%) say they would avoid GMOs if they were labeled. But even 5% would likely be enough to create a tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing all GM ingredients out of our food supply.

We can see the tipping point just over the horizon, but it is now threatened by the US position at Codex.

Tell our government leaders that you will not stand for this outrageous obstruction of our democracy and human rights. Demand that the U.S. support the right for countries everywhere to label GMOs. And remind them that 9 out of 10 Americans want mandatory GMO labeling, and that President Obama actually made a campaign pledge to implement it—which are all waiting for.

Send an email today!

Wholesome Wave Foundation funds 'Link Bucks' at Farmers Markets

Cassandra West

farmers markets produce LINK card users will get more beans for their bucks at Chicago Farmers Markets this season thanks to a grant from the Wholesome Wave Foundation to fund a Double Value Coupon Program. Experimental Station and the City of Chicago announced last week a program to accept Link (food stamps) at five city-run farmers markets starting May 13, 2010 at Daley Plaza. The Wholesome Wave grant will fund $5 in “Link Bucks” to match up to five dollars of LINK purchases per cardholder per market day at the Lincoln Square (Tuesdays), South Shore (Wednesday), Daley Plaza (Thursday), Division Street (Saturday), and Beverly (Sunday) farmers markets, a press release issued Tuesday says. When a shopper makes a LINK purchase at one of five participating farmers markets, the shopper will receive up to five extra dollars (“LINK Bucks”) to purchase more nutritious, local food. The “LINK Bucks” are valid at any of the five markets for the entire season (expiring October 30, 2010) and do not need to be redeemed the same day.

Experimental Station is a not-for-profit incubator of innovative cultural, educational, and environmental projects and small-scale enterprises. It was established in 2002 in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

The mission of Wholesome Wave Foundation Charitable Ventures Inc. is to nourish neighborhoods by supporting increased production and access to healthy, fresh and affordable locally grown food for the well-being of all. Wholesome Wave is based in Westport, CT.

5 Chicago Farmers Markets to accept EBT/LINK this season

Cassandra West

Five Chicago Farmers Markets have been authorized to accept EBT/LINK cards when the selling season kicks off on May 13, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events announced this week. EBT/LINK service will be available on these days: Tuesdays at Lincoln Square; Wednesdays at South Shore in the ShoreBank parking lot; Thursdays on Daley Plaza; Saturdays at Division Street; and Sundays at the Beverly market.

The Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT/LINK card, is the identification card for participants in the Federal Snap Benefits Food Stamp Program and is offered throughout Illinois to those who qualify. The backs of the cards have a magnetic strip that users swipe through an EBT/LINK machine much like a debit card.

The Mayor’s Office of Special Events is partnering with Experimental Station, a non-profit organization, to administer the program on site. Experimental Station operates the 61st Street Farmers Market.

“Experimental Station is pleased to offer this practical solution to making City of Chicago farmers markets accessible to more Chicagoans. We believe that people who shop at farmers markets not only develop a stronger connection to their food and to the producers of their food, but to one another,” says Connie Spreen, Experimental Station Executive Director.

Expanding EBT/LINK service to farmers markets also allows card users greater access to fresh produce and healthy foods, said Chris Raguso, acting commission in the city’s Department of Community Development.

Chicago Farmers Markets – 19 throughout the city-- offer fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, plants, baked goods and more. The season officially begins May 13 on Daley Plaza. For more information, call 312-744-3316 or visit

Click here for the 2010 list of Chicago Farmers Markets.

Crops on the corner: Hull-House farm a model for local production

Cassandra West

[youtube=]Standing inside a fenced-in space on the UIC campus, you can see Chicago's tallest building, the Willis Tower (formerly Sears), a black soaring tube of steel and glass pitched stately against a cloudless sky. Cars, buses and trucks whiz by this barren patch on the corner of Taylor and Halsted streets in a city always on the move. All around, city life runs at its breakneck pace, people on foot and in cars preoccupied and on their way to somewhere. Few take time to notice the incongruity set on this quarter-acre green space in the landmark neighborhood where the world's most famous settlement house once stood: an urban farm at the beginning of its growing season.

We're at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum Urban Farm, a half block from the museum and famous dining hall that now hosts a re-imagined soup kitchen, which pays homage to the city's socially conscious past--and present. The farm, a model for local food production, also supplies heirloom crops for "Re-Thinking Soup," a public and communal event where Chicagoans gather to eat healthy, nutritious soup and have "fresh, organic conversation about social, cultural, economic and environmental food issues."

It's mid-April and the farm is springing to life. Farmer Ryan and volunteers prepare the soil, combining rich, dark compost with straw and horse manure. They're setting up raised beds on the farm's eastern edge and planting the farm's first crops: potatoes, herbs and greens. Inside the portable hoop house and brick-and-glass greenhouse, tiny pepper and cabbage seedlings are starting to grow. The stage is being set for the new growing season. Soon, whether you notice or not, food will grow where many of us least expect to see it.

Over the coming months, Seeding Chicago will drop in regularly on the Hull-House Museum urban farm to bring you fresh updates on what's new and growing. We hope our reports will satisfy your hunger to understand the challenges and rewards of growing food in the city.

Healthy Food Bill Introduced in US Senate

Cassandra West

By Susan RichardsonNew York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a new bill Monday aimed at bringing healthy food to underserved communities.  The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is supported by the Obama administration, would invest $1 billion in grants and loans to build more than 2,100 new or renovated grocery stores, corner stores, and farmers' markets in urban and rural areas.  A similar version of the bill will be introduced in the House by Reps. Nydia Velazquez (NY), Allyson Schwartz (Penn.), and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) in the coming weeks.  Read more about the legislation.

Supporting the Healthy Food Financing Initiative

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

President Obama has set aside $345 million in his 2011 budget for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a program that will provide one-time loans and grant funding to increase healthy food options in underserved communities. Read more about the initiative, which is based on a business model from Philadelphia, and what you can do to support it.