PI Original Adam Doster Tuesday September 9th, 2008, 2:26pm

A Growing Movement: Urban Farming In Chicago

It was just past 9 am and the sun was already beating down on the dozen or so teens assembled in a small corner of Chicago's Grant Park. Wisely, Jessica Ellis assumed a spot in the shade. The 18-year-old had picked up a few tricks since she started working at the well-...

It was just past 9 am and the sun was already beating down on the dozen or so teens assembled in a small corner of Chicago's Grant Park. Wisely, Jessica Ellis assumed a spot in the shade. The 18-year-old had picked up a few tricks since she started working at the well-manicured farm just west of Columbus Drive two years prior. As she sat and washed freshly-harvested collard greens and cabbage, her peers bee-lined to the farm beds that formed the perimeter of the park, beginning the more arduous work of trimming and bundling a variety of lettuces. None seemed to notice the heat; the volunteers dug away, sharing a laugh in between snips. Ellis noted that the work made the trek down from her Cabrini Green home worthwhile. "I like planting and getting my hands dirty," she said.

This uncommon but picturesque urban scene took place on a piece of property operated by Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization and land trust dedicated to developing sustainable community food systems. Will Allen, a former NBA player with an agricultural background, created the organization a decade ago after purchasing the last remaining farm in Milwaukee. Following a brief foray into the world of for-profit food production, he pivoted, developing a comprehensive, non-profit agricultural complex complete with greenhouses, composts, outdoor pens for livestock, and a small retail store. He also implemented an urban farming training program that teaches schools, government agencies, and community members how to operate and sustain farms themselves.

In 2002, Allen's daughter Erika expanded the organization's reach 90 miles south to Chicago, where she had been living, studying, and working for 15 years. In just six short years, Allen, her staff, and local residents have collaborated on three projects: a traditional community garden adjacent to Cabrini Green, a half-acre site in Jackson Park on the city's South Side -- used for both high-intensity food production and as a community garden for local gardeners -- and the plot downtown. On just 12,000 square feet of land in what Allen calls "the front yard of Chicago," Growing Power cultivates 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. On top of the farming work, Allen's staff participates in farmers markets, supports other small projects like school gardens, and serves as a "leadership hub" for folks who are interested in the work. "People find us," says Allen. "They find us, they invite us in, and we assist.”

More and more people are doing just that. Growing Power is one of several organizations in Chicago working to improve access to quality food through urban agriculture. While historically food production has taken place in the open spaces of rural America, a growing number of urban denizens are beginning to till city plots in hopes of addressing a variety of intractable social injustices. Although limited in scale, the movement is maturing and could soon become a pivotal player in the nation's fight to cut carbon emissions and empower underserved communities.

Growing ... Growing ... Gone!

Like the Allens, Les Brown had a vision. A founder of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, he knew that one barrier that many homeless men and women faced in finding stability was a lack of job skills. Having grown up on a farm, he also recognized how transformative the act of growing food can be. So in 1992, he acquired a sliver of federal surplus land near Navy Pier reserved for people and organizations that work with the homeless and started making plans to build a series of greenhouses. Those plans ultimately changed; after deciding to turn the pier into a tourist attraction, the city swapped Brown's original plot for some land on the Near West Side near the ABLA housing projects.

But once grounded, Growing Home emerged as one of the leading urban agricultural organizations in the city, providing job training for some of Chicago’s most vulnerable while supplying high-end restaurants and the City Green Market with fresh produce. Now, they run a larger farm with a similar mission in Marseilles, Illinois and have taken the lead on constructing an agricultural complex in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which will eventually include an urban farm, a greenhouse, a barn, offices and a food processing area. “We work with people who have been homeless, who have been incarcerated, who have multiple barriers to employment,” says Harry Rhodes, the executive director. “They go through a process, working and training with us for seven months … and it just helps stabilize their lives so they can move on to something else, often related.”

The valuable work of Growing Home and Growing Power isn't being done in isolation, either. "Since 2001," says Rhodes, "I've seen this whole urban agriculture movement in Chicago really grow.” Both outfits are members of Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA), a loose network of local organizations and individuals who are interested in advocating for urban agriculture. Formed after a series of summits on food security in 2001 and 2002, AUA meets twice a year to share ideas and develop city policy prescriptions that favor urban agriculture projects. In fact, after creating a task force to investigate issues of food security, the Department of Planning and Development unveiled a plan last July -- entitled "Chicago: Eat Local Live Healthy” -- that adopted many of the goals pushed by AUA.

Chicago is just one of countless cities where residents are experimenting with food production. In Detroit, former sharecroppers and laid-off auto-workers are dropping seeds onto lots long-abandoned by depopulation and deindustrialization. In Oakland, an organization called People's Grocery operates five urban gardens in the largely black and Latino neighborhoods. In May, 60 delegates from the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development visited two farms in Brooklyn. And the list goes on.

More Than An Oasis

What is driving the creation of farms in cities like Chicago? Considering the amount of social inequities urban agriculture can assuage, the better question is what took so long.

Most obviously, urban farming increases the amount of nutritious food available to people living in underserved communities. According to research by Mari Gallagher, the president of Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, more than 500,000 Chicagoans – the vast majority of whom are African-American -- live in “food deserts,” defined as large geographic areas with no or distant grocery stores. Of this group, 400,000 live in areas with an imbalance of food choices, meaning they have access to fast-food and other “fringe” food purveyors but not to the fresh, healthy products commonly found at grocery stores.

Gallagher points to two factors that often preclude grocers from investing in low-income communities. For one, while market opportunities clearly exist, there’s not enough local market knowledge to necessitate a deal. Also, grocers (who generally earn thin profit margins) would rather compete against other providers than jump head-first into an untested market, despite its possible earning power.

Regardless of the cause, the health risks of food imbalance – controlling for factors like income, race, and education -- are stark. “What we found," says Gallagher, “is that residents who live in these food deserts areas are more likely to die and suffer prematurely from diet-related diseases such as diabetes, some kinds of cancer, hypertension, and cardio-vascular diseases.”

Considering the rising environmental and economic cost of shipping food, growing locally looks more practical than it once did as well. On average, food consumed in Illinois spends 1,500 miles in carbon-emitting transit, expenses for which the consumer undoubtedly pays. And as the Growing Home model proves, by supplying jobs and creating social connections for inner-city residents where none existed before, sustainable farms can be empowering (not to mention cost-effective) investments for communities long deserted by capital.

“We’re breaking down myths,” says Allen, “that food production can be beautiful, that it can be productive, that it can enhance the quality of life for folks, and that it can be a training ground for young people who are completely disconnected from any kind of environmental setting.”

Fighting For Land And Funding

Despite their efficacy, urban agriculture programs are only slowly garnering government attention. During negotiations over the 2007 Farm Bill, Congress set aside $50 million (divided over the next 10 years) in matching grant funds to organizations that work on issues of food security and hunger. Of course, that’s small potatoes compared to the massive government subsides handed out to Big Ag, which keeps food prices artificially low and makes it difficult for some local outfits to compete.

Closer to home, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act last summer, an economic development bill aimed at helping small farmers produce and distribute organic food. The bill directs Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint an Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force, which will make recommendations to the 2009 Illinois General Assembly for the development of a state-based infrastructure to meet Illinois’ expanding demand for local food. But given the state’s budget crunch, it’s unclear how much revenue will be available for such initiatives.

The city of Chicago has been more welcoming to the practice, witnessed by its "Chicago: Eat Local Live Healthy” program. Rhodes says that without a two-year, $175,000 social enterprise grant from the mayor's office, Growing Home couldn’t have gotten their Englewood farm up and running, either.

But red tape still impedes urban farmers. City Hall is often reluctant to part with land that could later be used for development, even though the city boasts over 70,000 vacant lots. “As much open space as there is here in Chicago, much of it is already planned for, which is something a lot of people don’t realize,” says Allen. “It’s not like the red carpets are rolled out and you’re able to get land to farm.”

Squashing potential farms is a lost opportunity for the city, as additional green space is said to reduce crime and improve air quality. And land ownership, especially in communities that lack reserves of wealth, is an easy way to build self-reliance and pride among residents. “If this is the greenest city on earth – and that’s the mayor’s vision – then there needs to be some resources for this work,” Allen says.

Easing restrictions on land tenure and providing micro-loans for small-scale farmers are two obvious ways local and state government can create opportunities for urban agriculture. Until those reforms are implemented, local farmers will continue to sharpen their understanding of agricultural policy and grow fresh food, proving to legislators the value of their work.

“We need these gardens in every community, and at least in every park,” says Allen. “And that’s a possibility."

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