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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: urban agriculture

Of renewals, seed swaps and mapping urban gardens in Chicago

Cassandra West


It’s been a while since my last blog post. OK, yes I know. A long while. But the hiatus is over.

I look forward again to digging into the constantly germinating Chicago community gardening/urban farming/local foods scene and sharing what I discover/uncover.

As I look around, I see everything emerging — slowly — from a long winter. You know what that means. Yeah, we might we able to plant something outside soon. But in the meantime, seed swaps are happening all over. (The UIC Heritage Garden is holding its first ever seed swap Sunday, March 29, at the Hull-House Dining Hall, 800 S. Halsted Ave., Chicago.) Garden supply stores are building up their inventories. Community gardens are registering old and new members.

And, speaking of community gardens. They keep cropping up. And so do city farms and more backyard gardens. I mean people are really getting into this growing-themselves-some-food thing. Since I launched this blog in 2010, the growth in urban agriculture hasn’t let up. It does, in fact, seem to be exploding.

seed swap flier
seed swap flier

o see how much urban ag is thriving in our area, jump on over to the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project (CUAMP), which launched this month. The project had a soft rollout March 7 at the 3rd Annual Chicago Community Gardening Association Gathering held at West Town Academy. The official launch was March 21 at the Good Food Festival & Conference at UIC.

Since around the time this blog started, CUAMP has been mapping and taking an inventory of urban agriculture and community gardens in Chicago. Representatives from nonprofits, urban ag organizations and universities worked together to bring the map to fruition. It’s administered by three entities: NeighborSpace, Advocates for Urban Agriculture and DePaul University’s Steans Center.

At the latest count there are 786 growing sites on the list. You can download an Excel spreadsheet of all them here.

SeedingChicago is beyond happy to see this groundswell of passion for urban gardening, and CUAMP is a huge testament to how serious people are taking local agriculture. And taking it to new heights

CUAMP includes urban gardens and farms of every stripe. On the spreadsheet you can find ownership info, whether a garden produces food, whether it's locked, is a collective or allotment and where gets its water.

Whether you write about urban agriculture as I do, or just want to get out and visit some of the hundreds of gardening sites in Chicago, CUAMP has done us all a great service. And, I appreciate all the effort that has gone into producing this valuable resource.

Urban farm to provide “job training and fresh vegetables”

Cassandra West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Farming: Chicago style

Cassandra West

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

FAQs on proposed urban ag ordinance in Chicago

Cassandra West

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

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

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

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

Emanuel plans to expand urban agriculture in Chicago

Cassandra West

Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to expand community gardens and urban farms to promote economic development, job creation and increase access to healthier food options in Chicago's food deserts.

“It is unacceptable that thousands of Chicagoans live in communities that lack access to fresh foods,” Emanuel said Tuesday during a ribbon-cutting for the urban Iron Street Farm. “I am committed to adopting innovative solutions that will increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables while creating jobs in order to ensure Chicagoans have the food options they need to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

Emanuel said he wants to increase urban agriculture in an effort to eliminate food deserts across the city while also creating green jobs such as those at Iron Street Farm. The seven-acre farm will create up to 150 jobs.

Many have noted that local food production also provides recreational opportunities and reduces energy costs.

If passed, the proposed ordinance will: • Expand the size limit on community gardens to 25,000 square feet; • Relax fencing and parking requirements on larger commercial urban farms in order to hold down overhead costs for the entrepreneurs and community organizations that launch and maintain these enterprises; and • Create green jobs and provide fresh produce in communities. The ordinance is expected to be introduced Thursday to the City Council and could be voted on in September, according to the Tribune.

This ordinance is another step in Chicago’s plan to increase food access and eliminate food deserts. Other steps the City has already taken include: • Convening a food desert summit in June with the CEOs of major grocery chains in Chicago and asked them to build stores in food deserts and increase healthy foods options; • Announcing Walgreens initiative to build more than a dozen new stores, include fresh produce in 39 existing stores currently in food deserts, while creating 300 new jobs in those communities; and • Hosting a pre-planning workshop with stakeholders from the community health, neighborhood development and urban growing sectors.

Emanuel also referred to the initiative announced last week by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her Partnership for a Healthier America initiative aimed at eliminating food deserts in the U.S. within seven years.

A week ago, Wal-Mart, Supervalu, Walgreens and a number of independent grocers, announced in a press conference with Mrs. Obama they will commit to increase the availability of fresh food into areas that have been designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "food deserts."

In coming months, the City will continue to address issues of food access, growing and distributing food, food enterprises, supplemental food programs, nutrition education and public awareness, with the overall goal of increasing public health and reducing childhood obesity, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

RELATED: Retailers commit to open stores in food deserts

Family Farmed Expo Report: The USDA and urban agriculture

Cassandra West

Ann Wright, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory programs

Ann Wright, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory programs, was at the Family Farmed Expo this weekend to talk about the department’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, farmers’ markets and food deserts.

She said, “agricultural marketing service has a key role in supporting farmers’ markets and the development of regional and local food systems across the country.”

Wright spoke with Seeding Chicago about the USDA’s nutrition programs, the department’s focus on combating obesity and the “exciting” work being done in urban agriculture to raise people’s awareness and empower communities.

Here are some comments Wright shared with Seeding Chicago:

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