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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Putting teeth into a Food Plan for Chicago

Cassandra West

An Austin resident prepares to plant vegetable in her community garden plot. /Seeding Chicago
An Austin resident prepares to plant vegetable in her community garden plot. /Seeding Chicago

More than 350 people from all over Chicago have spent the last 12 months working to draft a healthy food plan for the city. The plan is intended to guide public and private efforts to build a healthier food culture in Chicago.

The Chicago Departments of Housing and Economic Development, Public Health, and Family and Support Services, in collaboration with the Mayor's Office and diverse organizations and individuals across Chicago have supported the planning process. The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children is helping facilitate the process.

Anyone interested in creating a healthier food environment in Chicago is invited to attend the Final Planning Workshop Thursday, July 19 from 1 to 4 p.m. at UBS Tower, One North Wacker Drive. This workshop is intended to present the draft food plan and discuss implementation strategies. RSVP to M Snodgrass or 312-573-7799.

In the meantime, if you’re really serious about eating healthy, here’s a plan of action you can implement NOW: Buy fresh, local food. Support local farmers’ markets. Find your nearest one here. Eat produce that’s in season. Cook at home more. Plant a vegetable garden. Don’t have a patch of land? Grow vegetables in containers. Lettuce, fresh herbs and nutritionally rich kale, spinach and chard can be grown in pots.

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.

Chicago Food hubs connect producers, buyers

Cassandra West

Fresh Moves mobile market
The Fresh Moves mobile market at a West Side site.
The Fresh Moves mobile market at a West Side site.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture has compiled the first Regional Food Hub Resource Guide, which lists these innovative business models across the country—from Amissville, Va., to Salinas, Calif. The guide will interest those looking for businesses that connect producers with buyers.

"The Regional Food Hub Resource Guide is an important tool to help promote local and regional efforts to support small and medium-sized producers," Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan says. "Food hubs play a critical role in developing stronger supply chains and addressing the infrastructure challenges while supporting food access, regional economic development and job creation."

Food hubs allow farmers, especially smaller ones, to meet the growing consumer demand for fresh, local food. The resource guide lists four Chicago food hubs. Two are nonprofits, Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Market and Healthy Food Hub; two are privately held businesses, Goodness Greenness and Gourmet Gorilla. Fresh Moves is a mobile produce market that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved areas of Chicago, mainly on the West Side. (See our earlier post on Fresh Moves) Healthy Food Hub, through its biweekly market days, connects residents, mainly on the South Side, with fresh produce from regional and national farmers. (See our earlier post on the Healthy Food Hub.) Goodness Greeness is the Midwest’s leading source for fresh, organic produce and the largest privately held organic distributor in the country, according to its website. Gourmet Gorilla™ provides pre-schools, elementary and high school and other institutions, with breakfast, lunch and snacks delivered daily.

In 2011, USDA identified more than 170 food hubs operating around the country.

One Earth Film Fest April 27-29 in Oak Park/River Forest

Cassandra West

To stimulate dialogue and inspire planet-friendly action, Green Community Connections in Oak Park is hosting its first One Earth Film Fest 2012 April 27-29.The planning committee evaluated and considered more than 300 films, then narrowed its final selections to 16 feature-length films that have received critical acclaim within the green film community. Another 12-17 shorter features also will be part of the eclectic mix of cinematic offerings during the weekend, which kicks off with a

Green Carpet Gala at Oak Park Conservatory on the evening of April 27. Several of the films being shown include “The Last Mountain,” “Waste Land,” “A Fierce Green Fire,” “What’s On Your Plate?” “Wall-E,” “Journey of the Universe” and “Queen of the Sun.” Showings will take place at multiple venues in Oak Park and River Forest. “Our intent is to cultivate awareness, spur involvement, and promote environmental sustainability in our own community and beyond,” said Sally Stovall, who led one of the planning committees. “The films chosen by Green Community Connections for its first festival are compelling, powerful and rich in their diversity of topics, but also focused on inspiring each of us to think about the role we can play in protecting our planet. We’re hoping to offer something meaningful for every member of the family.” Tickets and a complete list of films and show times are available at One Earth Film Festival 2012. Admission is free to most screenings and events. Advance ticket purchases are required for the “Green Carpet Gala” on Friday, April 27. For more information on the fest, visit Green Community Connection’s festival page and its Facebook page. You can also follow the group on Twitter.

A simple seed germination test

Cassandra West

With seed swap season in full swing, many of us are swooping up all kinds of seeds with visions of nutritious vegetables dancing in our heads. But what if those seeds don’t yield what we’re expecting? How does one test seeds to make sure they’ll grow into edibles? During Chicago Botanic Garden’s recent seed swap, Lisa Hilgenberg, a horticulturist there, demonstrated a simple seed germination test that anyone can do. Watch the video to see how you can, too.

Lisa Hilgenberg, Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist demonstrates a simple seed germination test.

It's seed swap season around Chicago

Cassandra West

This is the time of year for seed swaps around Chicago. Several groups have swaps of all sorts planned this weekend and next. Chicago Botanic Garden Seed Swap Sunday, Feb. 26 2 to 5 p.m. Details: Featuring Diane Ott Whealy co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange and author of “Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver.” Diane will give a lecture and sign books from 2 to 3 p.m. Her presentation will be illustrated with photographs from her cottage–style garden at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm.

From 3 to 5 p.m. everyone is invited to bring saved seed or excess seed packets to participate in the two-hour exchange. You don’t need to bring seed to swap (taking seed home works, too) and there will be a variety of demonstrations on starting seeds, saving seeds, seed germination testing and more.


The Eco Collective seed swap Sunday Feb 26 2pm-5pm in Pilsen RSVP for the exact address $5 donation (benefits Eco Rooftop garden) Details: Come swap seeds with other gardeners to improve your garden's variety this spring & learn a couple of new things about growing. Bring seeds that you have saved over the growing season, “still viable” seeds that you have left over from last season, or new packs you've purchased for this season. And, bring a dish or drink to share with everyone, because snacks are always good.

The Peterson Garden Project annual seed swap Sunday, March 4 2 to 5 p.m Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Galter Pavilion Second Floor 5140 N. California Free admission Details: Trade your eggplant for zucchini, your cucumber for tomato. In addition to the seed exchange, there will also be opportunities to learn about planting, edible seeds, heirloom vegetables, and more. Peterson Garden Project volunteers will be on hand to discuss their three new community gardens for 2012. Details on sign-up to reserve garden plots will come mid-March; sign up for the Peterson Garden Project newsletter or follow their Facebook page for the latest information on the 2012 growing season.

Chicago ordinance paves way for Englewood urban farm

Cassandra West

The first urban farm developed under Chicago’s new urban agriculture ordinance broke ground Oct. 14 on a one-acre gravel-covered site in Englewood.

Growing Home Inc., which already operates a half-acre agricultural property nearby, will manage the farm and have it planted for the spring 2012 growing season. By next summer the vacant lot will be a verdant oasis of fresh produce in an area that’s often classified as a food desert. Residents of the South Side neighborhood will be able to purchase fresh tomatoes, okra and collard greens—the vegetables most in demand in that area, said Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home.

A decade-old social enterprise, Growing Home has worked for about a year to get a larger farm up and running, Rhodes said. He had wanted to see the new ordinance happen sooner, but its Sept. 8 passage made launching the Honore Street farm easier, he added.

About 50 activists, community leaders and urban agriculture supporters attended the groundbreaking ceremony, including philanthropist Barbara Rose; Martha Boyd, program director for Angelic Organics Learning Center, and researcher Mari Gallagher, who studies the impact of food deserts on urban communities.

Growing Home provides job training for homeless and other individuals who have faced employment challenges. It also partners with community organizations such as Teamwork Englewood, Chicago Community Trust, Boeing and Kennedy-King College to engage individuals and communities in growing food, understanding healthy eating and advocating for sustainable, healthy food systems.

“We’ve succeeded in bringing together many partners,” Rhodes said. “We created the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Taskforce. The goal of the taskforce is to create this urban agriculture district. This is the second farm. We want to see 10 farms within a couple of years. We want to see 50 farms here in Englewood.”

Rhodes expects that with the new farm, Growing Home will be able to expand its transitional jobs program. It could possibly grow to about 40 people and employ four full-time people, “creating 50 jobs a year with this site and other farms.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin attended the groundbreaking and the reception afterward at Growing Home’s Wood Street Farm less than a block away. He applauded efforts to bring more green to neighborhoods like Englewood, which has its share of vacant lots, desolate stretches and limited food and employment options.

“It’s amazing to me as you drive through these crowded, challenged neighborhoods and, bingo, there you have some terrific greenhouses and some other projects underway.”

Locally grown, locally produced foods taking hold

Cassandra West

Take a look around and perhaps you’ve noticed a trend we’ve been following recently: the growth of locally produced specialty foods and drinks. Increasingly, local foods entrepreneurs are moving beyond selling produce fresh from the garden or farm. Many are now turning locally grown produce into condiments, teas, seasonings, herbal tinctures, bath and body care lotions and salts.

The boutique food products haven’t exactly knocked the Lipton and Heinz brands off supermarket shelves yet, but they’re catching on. You’re still more likely to find them, though, at farmers’ markets and small natural foods stores like Real Naked Foods in Wicker Park, which opened this past spring. And, Oak Park-based Family Farmed is giving a boost by constantly promoting the production and distribution of locally grown and produced food.

We've taking to checking out local foods, purchasing ones that appeal to our tastes — and sometimes just pure curiosity. This summer we picked up a jar of a wonderfully delicious and tangy pickled okra at the Oak Park Farmers Market. And, yes, we liked it a lot.

But it was the Family Farmed Expo that truly opened our eyes to what’s happening in this growing segment of food production. While strolling through FF’s vendor fair at this past spring, Seeding Chicago chatted with many of the vendors who were selling products. (Imagine actually talking with a food producer. You’d be lucky if someone from Heinz even took a call your call.)

We didn’t leave the Expo empty handed. We took home some incredible kombucha (fermented tea) made by Nessalla in Madison, Wis.; a chunky and bold cranberry catsup from The Scrumptious Pantry; a tongue-tingling poblano sauce by Co-Op Sauce, a nonprofit that supports a youth art center and community arts initiatives in Chicago’s Humboldt Park Neighborhood; a package of no-cholesterol spinach tortilla wraps from La Mexicana Tortilleria, Inc., in Chicago, and some out-of-this-world specialty blended teas by SenTEAmental Moods Teas, located here in Chicago.

Lori, the owner of SenTEAmental makes some of the most creative blends anywhere. She's even blended smooth, decadent tea made with sweet potatoes, vanilla, almonds, sunflower, jasmine and calendula petals called Southern Comfort.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Check out the video above and hear directly from this new breed of food producers. And, if you have a favorite local food you’d like to tell us about, Email us here.


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.

Suburban gardener maximizes her space for growing food

Cassandra West

Debbie slider

Master gardener Debbie Kong

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

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

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

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

Garfield Park Conservatory teaches greener living

Cassandra West

The Garfield Park Conservatory on Chicago’s West Side is offering another series of workshops for those interested in greener living. We encourage you to check them out. Here’s what coming up next on the Conservatory's “Growing & Green Living” schedule: How to Harvest, Use & Brew Compost Wednesday, Aug. 17, 6-7:30 pm $5 suggested donation

Garfield Park ConservatoryThis session will offer up tips on harvesting both yard waste compost and worm compost, how to use it, and how to modify it to meet specific needs of your space. We will also demonstrate how to make compost tea, as well as different types of materials to make homemade compost sieves. Pre-register online. Kitchen Sink Composting: Indoor Worm Bins for Your Kitchen Saturday, Aug. 20, 10 am – Noon $30 per bin (up to 2 participants) Looking for great compost you can make in your own kitchen? Come to this workshop, learn about worm composting, and leave with your very own kitchen composting bin, complete with worms. Pre-register online. Demonstration: Brewing a Batch of Compost Tea Saturday, Aug. 20, 1-3 pm FREE Drop-in anytime during the designated hours to view a demonstration and chat with Master Composters about how to brew and use compost tea. No pre-registration required. Beginning Beekeeping ONLY A FEW SPACES LEFT – REGISTER TODAY! Saturday, Sept. 3, 9 am – 2 pm $70 (or $50 for GPCA members & approved volunteers) Spend the day with us learning the basics of beekeeping equipment, hive design and construction, bee biology and behavior, bee management and bee products. Pre-registration and payment is required. Register online. Harvesting & Storing Seeds Saturday, Sept. 10, 10 am – Noon $5 suggested donation Seed saving is great for anyone interested in increasing the productivity of their garden. In this workshop we will discover the basics of seed saving for annual, biennial and perennial plants. We will go over hands-on techniques for wet and dry seed harvest, threshing, winnowing and storage. Pre-register online.

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

Root Riot community gardeners' work day in Oak Park

Cassandra West

If you have a garden, you've got to work it. Every gardener knows that or will soon learn it. Root Riot, a community garden in Oak Park with approximately 50 beds, held a workday on July 16 to pull up weeds and put down wood chips. The garden even inaugurated its newly built table and benches, made of wood from an old Wisconsin barn. (Thanks, Stephanie's brother!)And, luckily for all, we finished the work done before the heatwave of 2011 arrived in full force. Check out this clip of our morning in the garden:

Fresh Moves mobile food market hits Chicago streets

Cassandra West

In urban communities known as “food deserts,” fresh, healthy produce is often nowhere to be found. Processed meats, sodas and chips, though, are available in abundance.

To improve nutrition and curb the consumption of too many empty calories, residents in food deserts need access to more fruits and vegetables. Now, there’s an option.

The Fresh Moves mobile market makes a stop at New Bethel Life Center. /Seeding Chicago photo

Fresh Moves, a mobile food market, has come to two Chicago neighborhoods — Austin and Lawndale. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the converted CTA bus pulls up to pre-designated locations offering all to climb aboard and load up on apples, cucumbers, bananas, collards, kale, mustard greens and more. Fresh Moves even stocks some organic items, at prices much more affordable than retail chains such as Whole Foods Markets, which are often located in more affluent communities.

Fresh Moves mobile market includes a driver and two retail assistants who are happy to hop off the bus and take orders from customers with mobility problems.

The idea for Fresh Moves sprang up three years ago, when food activists Steve Casey, Sheelah Muhammad and Jeff Pinzino, who all have backgrounds in philanthropy, decided it was time to do something about the lack of access to fresh, healthy foods in poor, economically isolated neighborhoods.

The three started the grass-roots organization, Food Desert Action and went about seeking support and funding. They got the Chicago Transit Authority to donate the bus for the price of $1. Architecture for Humanity rehabbed the bus. Chase Foundations donated some funds. Good City, a West Side organization that provides emerging entrepreneurs and community leaders with training and knowledge to implement innovative and necessary programs in the city’s underserved neighborhoods, became their fiscal agent. A Chicago nonprofit EPIC: Engaging Philanthropy, Inspiring Creatives, INC. donated approximately $70,000 worth of creative and branding services, Casey says.

Shawn Jackson, principal of Spencer Technology Academy, a Chicago Public School in Austin, has gladly welcomed Fresh Moves to the neighborhood, and the mobile market visits his school on Thursday mornings from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

“This is a food desert here,” says Jackson, referring to the area around Spencer. “There are no healthy food options at all. I mean a grease pit. McDonald’s is the default food here. … This is what my [students] are exposed to.

“To run into something like Fresh Moves was a godsend. The fact that you have a group of individuals willing to do this was superb.”

Jackson says he believes good eating habits can start at school, if not at home. When Fresh Moves visited Spencer “last Thursday, every student purchased something," Jackson says. "We want kids at home saying, 'Hey, the Fresh Moves bus is coming.' ”

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!

How does your garden grow: Make your own compost

Cassandra West


Composting was long sort of a mystery to me. Making soil? Your own dirt? I didn’t get it. Even after driving to Milwaukee and taking a tour of Will Allen’s big composting enterprise, Growing Power, I was still wondering what was the big deal about dirt and worms.

Then my friend Nancy told me about her “black gold.” That’s what she calls the rich compost mixture she and her family create in their backyard from the food scraps, paper waste, garden clippings and dead leaves they collect through the seasons. When spring comes, she taps into her black gold to fertilize her vegetable garden. And her tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peas all grow stronger because of it.

Last spring, I paid a visit to Nancy’s garden just as she was getting ready to spread the wealth of her compost pile. An hour in her back yard and suddenly composting made sense.

In this video, she explains it all.

Chicagoan LaDonna Redmond joins Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Cassandra West

LaDonna Redmond LaDonna Redmond (Seeding Chicago photo)

LaDonna Redmond, the new Food and Justice Senior Program Associate for The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, was back in Chicago this weekend for the Family Farmed Expo.

Redmond, who recently relocated to Minneapolis to join IATP, is a Chicago native who built a national reputation around advocating for equitable food access, developing farmers markets and improving the food system process. She has worked to get Chicago Public Schools to evaluate junk food, launched urban agriculture projects, started a community grocery store and worked on federal farm policy to expand access to healthy food in low-income communities. Redmond is also a former Food and Society Policy Fellow.

In her new post at IATP, Redmond will work on looking at how the food system has impacted everyone, and not just through dietary outcomes, she says. She will also grant money to researchers and scholars to study the inequities and health disparities in the food system. She is currently seeking proposals for a literature review on the health consequences of racial and economic injustice in relationship to ALL aspects of the food system. The purpose of the review is to map the research that is currently available on these topics and the gaps in data that need to be addressed.

Redmond said she will also be working on creating a network of food justice activists and how to tell the correct narrative around food justice and the food system.

Here’s a video of our interview with Redmond:

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.