That Land’s Not Vacant, it’s Fallow: Creating More Community Gardens in Chicago’s Food Deserts

By Linda Seggelke

New_crops-Chicago_urban_farmFood deserts—areas where access to groceries and fresh food has been replaced by convenience stores and fast food restaurants—have plagued Chicago for years, particularly in the west and south neighborhoods. A recent report has shown that these areas are shrinking, with the number of Chicagoans living in a food desert reduced by 40% over the last five years.

Those are huge gains, but with a food desert population of over 383,000, the battle is far from over. One measure to combat the issue is urban farming. Since food deserts are often in areas with vacant lots, a community can address both problems, turning around brownfields while cultivating locally-grown food.

The City of Chicago recently launched Farmers for Chicago, a program that will free up five acres of city-owned vacant lots for urban farming activity. Created in partnership with Growing Power, a non-profit urban agriculture organization based out of Milwaukee, the program will help expand the supply chain for local neighborhood-level food production and wholesale. Farmers for Chicago will train up to 20 people in urban farming skills and coordinate with local nonprofits that will install food growing equipment.

“Once made available, these vacant lots will help stabilize communities by bringing productive activity to areas that need it around food deserts,” said Mayor Emanuel. “Farmers for Chicago will give local residents a chance to not only learn how to grow food in their communities, but also build their own food enterprise.”

One of the first programs of its kind in the nation, Farmers for Chicago will be implemented over a three year period. With support from the philanthropic sector, Farmers for Chicago will help establish a strong local food sector in those neighborhoods that are lacking fresh produce. Urban growers will develop the skills necessary to succeed at food commerce, such as growing and packaging fruits and vegetables as well as creating distribution chains with farmer’s markets, local corner stores, grocery chains and restaurants.

As part of the new city collaboration and with the support of the United States Department of Agriculture, several organizations have begun training residents, especially those with limited work history, in how to grow local food. Chicago-based Growing Home is expanding growing facilities in Englewood, while Angelic Organics Learning Center will soon break ground on an urban agriculture facility in Greater Grand Crossing. The Chicago Botanic Garden will continue to offer garden training courses while Heartland Human Care Services will continue to develop a two and a half-acre farm in Humboldt Park.

Cistern and manFarmers for Chicago will recruit 25 trainees from those programs and provide them with technical assistance needed to start a food business, including help with obtaining the General Agricultural Practices certification required for retail wholesales, building a farm operation, hoop house construction and creating a distribution plan. Trainees will have access to shared tools, space, compost, financial literacy and other enrichment at Growing Power’s Iron Street Farm.

“I am excited that the City is partnering up with the community on such an important initiative,” said Erika Allen, Executive Director of Growing Power. “Our new pipeline will take Chicago’s local food sector to the next level.”

Growing Home helps empower people and communities with Chicago’s first USDA-certified organic, high-production urban farms. With installations in the Englewood and Back of the Yards neighborhoods, as well as the 10-acre Les Brown Memorial Farm in Marseilles, Illinois, Growing Home seeks to operate, promote and demonstrate the use of organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment and community development.

In 2011, Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm grew and sold over 13,000 pounds of local, organic produce, with over $45,000 in earned income. Growing Home sells its produce at the Green City Market, through a Community Supported Agriculture program, and to fine Chicago restaurants. Additionally, Growing Home holds a weekly farm stand for Englewood residents and provides programming on healthy cooking and nutrition to bring healthy options to this food desert.

The city’s role will be to identify clusters of city-owned land at appropriate locations that can be made available to farmer trainees, typically through the land’s transfer to a land trust or through a lease with one of the community-based training agencies that are identified as participants. The city will make sites available to further the productive uses of formerly vacant land, improve community access to healthy food, help participants to supplement their incomes and to foster workforce training.

LV cold crop beds smThe incubator network will help train people interested in farming, processing, marketing, selling and distributing produce. Specific skills training will range from hoop house construction and compost development to business plan development and retail sales. There are about 15 acres in the network that are either already operating as farming and training sites, being planted this year or are breaking ground next year.

Urban farming isn’t new to Chicago, of course. Many organizations, such as Midwest Ecological Landscape Alliance (MELA), have been working to help Chicago inner-city neighborhoods develop community gardens.

One example is a lot in the Little Village neighborhood that was once an abandoned expanse of concrete. Now, 26 raised vegetable beds are manned by local volunteers from Enlace Chicago, an area non-profit that helps manage and train volunteers for urban agriculture projects.

Several MELA members donated time, money and materials to the project, including Lake Street Landscape Supply, Lupfer Landscaping and Shemin Nurseries. A 1,550 gallon cistern will collect water from the roof of the building on a neighboring lot for use in irrigating the garden.

A 40% reduction in food deserts over five years is an incredible success and none of us should ignore that. Hopefully these efforts to cultivate unused land in Chicago will help to eliminate them in the next five.

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