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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Category: local Agriculture

Cook County seeks public input on proposed food policy council

Cassandra West

The Cook County Department of Public Health is proposing the creation of a food policy council for Cook County. The food policy council would be an official committee that explores cross-agency and cross-jurisdictional food issues and makes recommendations to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Do you live or work in Cook County, Illinois? If so, you are invited to complete a survey on how government laws, rules, ordinances, regulations and programs affect the way we eat, grow, transport, store, process, distribute, sell, or handle food or food waste.

The survey results will be used to create recommendations on what issues a proposed Cook County food policy council will focus its efforts. The Cook County food policy council is anticipated to be an official committee that explores cross-agency and cross-jurisdictional food issues and makes recommendations to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Click here to access the survey.

The survey will be open until September 29, 2011.

To answer the survey in Spanish, call 708-633-8314 or e-mail Para contester esta encuesta en espanol, favor de llamar a 708-633-8314; o escriba a

Please share this opportunity to provide YOUR input on the issues of importance related to food in Cook County by tweeting this post or putting as your Facebook status. Click the Tweet/Facbook buttons above right.

Nothing better than food from your own garden

Cassandra West

By Nancy Traver CompostingSpring is getting on here in northern Illinois, and now is the time to get going on your garden. Your effort will pay off later when you’re enjoying the fresh lettuce, radishes and — much later — delicious tomatoes from your garden. There is nothing better than going into your yard, picking your dinner from the ground, cleaning it and enjoying the feast. And it requires so little labor, you have to wonder why more people don’t do it.

But that brings up the challenges in gardening. Here is what I hear from most of my friends: I don’t have good sun, I don’t have good soil, I don’t have time, I don’t like dirt, worms, weeds, etc. All valid concerns!

A lack of sunlight is a serious issue in our northern climate and short growing season. A couple of years ago, a friend decided to put in a vegetable garden and planted it between two houses. It never received any direct sunlight! I was amazed that anything actually sprouted. What came up from her garden were lanky, spindly, unhealthy looking cucumbers, small green tomatoes and very sketchy zucchini. She put the tomatoes on her windowsill to ripen and, when she tried eating them, they tasted like mush! Even worse than the cardboard variety you get in the grocery store. That was her last attempt at gardening.

In northern Illinois, you need at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight to successfully grow a garden. I’m blessed with a backyard plot that receives full-day sun. Many of us don’t have that, however, with the older, beautiful shade trees in our yards. To get around this problem, I’ve seen many people in Evanston rent a community garden plot (cost: $37 per year!) or plant in their parking area alongside the street. Surprisingly, even though your crop of tasty tomatoes is highly visible to passersby, few people steal your yield. (I guess tomato theft is below most people.)

After you’ve found your way past the no-sunlight problem, there is the soil issue. Most gardeners in northern Illinois have too much clay in their soil. This must be broken up, but it’s easy to do. Go to any gardening center and buy bags of compost or manure. Manure is even cheaper than compost and it is wonderful for growing vegetables! Besides breaking up the clay in your soil, it will add vital nutrients. To grow vegetables, you have to enrich the soil every year. An even better way to improve your soil is to add compost from your kitchen, but you have to start making that before spring planting time. (Watch our composting video.) Simply shovel a layer of manure or compost on top of your planting area and then work it into your soil. Voila! You’re ready to plant.

Once your soil is prepared, the fun really begins. Plan your garden around what you like to eat. A friend recently was discussing this with me and said someone had urged her to grow lots of eggplant because it is a beautiful plant. The leaves are a delicate shade of purple, and the flowers are lavender. Only one problem: My friend hates eggplant! Instead, she planted chard (which I dislike), lettuce (and lots of it), green beans, snap peas and carrots. She has three children and those are the vegetables they like. Don’t let your produce go to waste: Pick the vegetables that appeal to you.

Early crops go in first: peas, lettuce, spinach and radishes. I call them my “winter crops” because it’s so cold in northern Illinois in April that it often feels like winter. These crops will sprout, however, despite the cold temps, rain and even snow. Spinach, especially, seems to like the cool weather. If you wait to plant till June, your spinach will not do well. It’s easily discouraged, it seems, by heat. All of these crops are planted by seed. You can also plant zucchini, squash, pumpkin and other vine plants by seed.

Some vegetables and herbs are best launched in your garden using small plants or seedlings. Go to any garden center and pick out healthy looking eggplant, tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, strawberries, etc. Other herbs such as rosemary and tarragon are also best to start with seedlings.

Some gardeners will tell you that the best-tasting tomatoes are the heirlooms. These include the Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and other types. While the heirlooms have some dazzling names and are growing in popularity, I’m still a fan of the hybrids. An especially good hybrid for northern Illinois is the Early Girl. Early Girls were developed to ripen in areas with limited summer heat like we have in northern Illinois. They are sweet and a bit crunchy compared to other tomatoes, which makes them perfect for tossing in salads and eating out of your hand with a sprinkle of salt. My sister is an heirloom fan and will plant only heirlooms in her garden. However, she enters her tomatoes in a taste contest every year and guess what wins: the hybrids every time. They are simply sweeter and have a higher sugar content. Go, Early Girl!!

As I said, there is nothing more satisfying than picking your dinner out of your backyard plot. You are feeding yourself, your family, and you are saving the planet by not driving your gas-guzzling car to the grocery store and buying food that has been trucked in from distant locations and displayed in plastic bags. So get with it and start gardening!

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:

Chicago-area Whole Foods Markets team with Family Farmed to sell more locally grown produce

Cassandra West

During the winter months, many of the tomatoes in local Whole Foods Markets are imported from Mexico. This summer expect to find more Illinois-grown tomatoes in Chicago-area Whole Foods Markets. You can also expect more locally grown asparagus, melons, cucumbers and fruits, too. Through a partnership with, Whole Foods Markets has plans to increase fresh fruits and vegetables from growers in Illinois and other nearby states.

Jose Valadez, Whole Foods Markets’ head produce buyer for the Chicago region, spent the winter months traveling the state meeting with farmers who can provide the food chain with produce grown closer to its stores. “We’re looking for opportunities throughout the state” to work with farmers who can fulfill the stores’ produce needs, Valadez told Seeding Chicago. He’s met with farmers in Peoria, Grayslake and the Kankakee area who are interested in becoming WFM produce vendors.

To sell to WFM, growers have to submit applications for vetting by and then to WFM for further view, according to the Request for Information from Midwest Farmers obtained from, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that works to build and utilize local food systems.

Family Farmed’s forager James Pirovano, whose job is to find farmers and match them with buyers, says FF is working with growers throughout Illinois and all the bordering states.

Farmers who have substantial volumes of produce may be chosen to sell directly to the WFM Distribution Center in Indiana. Farmers will smaller volumes may be chosen to sell directly to one or more stores in Illinois. In those cases, store produce buyers may purchase products directly from farmers who will deliver their products the stores themselves.

“Our definition of local is 250 miles from the store,” said Kate Klotz, Whole Foods Markets Midwest Region public relations manager.

WFM is also contracting with farms about 40 miles from the city that grow microgreens such as broccoli, baby chard, spinach, Valadez said. “Our goal is to sell the highest quality products. We prefer organic, but that’s not always the case. Our focus is to increase the local penetration.”

WFM has 17 stores in the Chicago area.

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:

Woodlawn garden wins Chicago landscape award

Cassandra West

Chicago community garden in Woodlawn 2009 By Susan Richardson

The 65th Street and Woodlawn Community Garden recently won first prize in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Landscape Awards in the vegetable garden category, competing against 13 other gardens. The Cook County Sheriff's Office, which runs a vegetable garden at the County Jail, and the Fulton Street Flower and Vegetable Garden took second and third prizes, respectively.

The citywide competition is in its 54th year; there were 177 entries across multiple categories in this year's contest.

"[The annual awards program] is the city’s way of acknowledging the individuals, businesses, community groups, schools and other public institutions who contribute their time and energy to make our city the greenest in the nation,” Mayor Daley said in a news release.

The awards include eight categories: commercial landscapes, container gardens, living green roofs and walls, multi-unit residential high rises, native landscapes, public institutions, specialized gardens and vegetable gardens. Awards are also given based on sections of the city in four categories -- community landscapes, multiunit residential, schools and single-family residential.

Judges visited gardens and ranked them based on criteria including how well they were planned and maintained, use of best environmental practices such as recycling, composting and harvesting rainwater, creativity and community engagement.

The Woodlawn garden, which has about 116 raised beds, began eight years ago on land owned by First Presbyterian Church. Some of the vegetables grown in the garden are donated to the church’s food program.

The awards will be presented at an invitation-only ceremony on November 6.

For more information on the awards, visit Greencorps Chicago, Department of the Environment.

(Seeding Chicago's Susan Richardson participates in the 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden.)

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.

Group calls for week of action for food justice

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

Under the theme of “ending poverty by rebuilding local food economies,” the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, a new coalition of farmers, farm workers, supporters of community gardens, organizers in communities of color and others, is attempting to build a unified national political voice for food justice.

In its inaugural campaign, the organization is calling on food activists across the nation to host events Oct. 10-17 that highlight efforts to replace the global corporate food system with one that is just, local and based on the right to food.

Several groups have worked on various grassroots food justice issues in the U.S. for years.  But, until now, the efforts were mostly separate, said Christina Schiavoni, director of the Global Movements Program for WhyHunger.

“[The Alliance] is unique in that it is an alliance around food sovereignty, a term and a movement that has been taken up by groups around the world, but not in the US,” she said. “This is the first time that groups are coming together from across the different sectors.”

The Alliance grew from the US Social Forum in Detroit last June, a grassroots gathering to come up with solutions for economic and ecological issues. However, the roots of the Alliance date back to spring 2008 and the founding of the US Working Group on the Food Crisis. Supporters say corporate control of the food system is the primary cause of damage to people, communities and the environment and blame the system for the more than 1 billion hungry people worldwide.  They hope to take advantage of a series of anti-trust hearings being held by the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Agriculture in the next year to promote the need for the reform of the food system.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, a women-led nonprofit in Bellingham, Wash., that works for a just society and healthy communities, said the Alliance is helping build a comprehensive approach to food justice.  

“Food security, food justice, empowerment of workers, feeding the hungry …. [the Alliance] is actually combining all these movement efforts that have been going on,”  Guillen said.

Movements in the Global South can be models for food organizing in the US, she said, noting that farm workers and other workers are defining land and food production policies in Latin America and around the world.

Schiavoni said the Alliance will build solidarity with farmers and food activists worldwide through support for US trade and agricultural policies that enhance human life. She said treating food as a commodity has resulted in global poverty and hungry, she said.  

“Food is not a commodity, just as human life and workers are not commodities. That is one thing we are saying in these trade agreements,” she said, adding that unregulated speculation has resulted in unstable food prices, making it difficult for people to afford to buy food.

The government enables this “broken commodity system,” she said, through subsidies for agribusinesses that allow them to overproduce a handful of commodity crops and sell food for much less than it costs to produce it.  Schiavoni said the problem is not with farmers, but the “grain traders and agribusinesses” that benefit.

The impact of such policies is global as well as local. “Part of food being a human right means we should be able to eat the food that we want to eat, not what is being provided to us by corporate producers,” said Guillen, referring to the fare at most grocery stores.  

That is part of the Alliance’s support for “culturally appropriate” food.  “To me, food sovereignty means we as Mexican Americans are able to eat food that is healthy to us and traditional to us, like corn,” said Guillen, adding that the food can be produced outside of the corporate food process.

Schiavoni said the media do a disservice by presenting the healthy food movement outside of the context of social justice.

“They are overlooking the 50 million hungry people in this country,” she said.  “The whole point of food justice and sovereignty is about social justice and creating some sort of more equitable food system, and you can’t just do that by buying organic kale at Whole Foods.”

Get involved in the week of action:  Contact Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, WhyHunger, at, (646) 380-1162; or Stephen Bartlett, Agricultural Missions, at, (502) 896-9171.

Event: Community Food Security Coalition Conference, New Orleans, Oct. 15-19

Learn more about the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.



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

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