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Programs Bring Harvest of Locally Grown Food

In 2006, Sinai Urban Health Institute released a study that showed alarming rates of diabetes, obesity and other nutrition-related public health problems in Humboldt Park, North Lawndale and elsewhere on the South and West sides of Chicago.

That same year, researcher Mari Gallagher released a report titled, “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” which mapped out large swaths of the city’s South and West sides where full-service grocery stores are oases if they exist at all, making fresh produce extremely difficult to find.

The 61st Street Farmers Market continues indoors in November and December at Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave.

Ed Finkel

During the second five years of its New Communities Program (NCP) and through other programs like Elev8, LISC/Chicago has redoubled its commitment to efforts that bring healthier, more diverse gastronomic options into NCP neighborhoods.

Heretofore they have been rife with corner stores that sell chips and pop, fast-food chains with burgers and chicken, and ethnic eateries whose high-calorie, old-school cuisine is less congruent with today’s more sedentary lifestyles.

“For too long, people living in NCP communities have not had the access to good food that many other communities take for granted,” said Chris Brown, director of education programs at LISC/Chicago.

LISC/Chicago’s support has spanned locally grown food through urban agriculture, community gardens and farmers markets; help for the needy through emergency food distribution and other meals programs; physical infrastructure like grocery stores and restaurants; health and nutrition education and programming; and further research and advocacy around healthy eating options.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles about LISC/Chicago’s programming that will focus on farmers’ markets, community gardens and urban agriculture.

Markets LINC poor to produce
On a crisp late September Saturday morning, people hungrily watched chef Samm Petrichos of Subterranean Foods slice and dice a savory mixture of chicken, tomato, carrot, green onions, broccoli and balsamic vinegar into a frying pan. “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum!” exclaimed a little boy upon devouring the end results.

Nearby along 61st Street in Woodlawn, vendors advertised fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses, with prominently displayed signs that read, “Food stamps accepted here.” The street was well-populated with customers for the market stands.

Chef Samm Petrichos of Subterranean Foods stir-fries a tasty concoction during the 61st Street Farmers' Market.

Ed Finkel

At least seven neighborhoods in NCP and the Great Neighborhoods Program enjoy farmers’ markets during the warmer months of the year, many of which have just closed for 2010 — or will be as the calendar turns to November. In addition to Woodlawn, they are set up in Logan Square, Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, Englewood, Albany Park and Grand Crossing.

Among the more active is the 61st Street Farmers’ Market, which grew out of a food co-op called the Woodlawn Buying Club that began in 1998. With 20 vendors — all but two of them organic, and all from within 100 miles – the market features the live chef demonstrations most weeks.

“The market was conceived as a way to bring fresh produce and organic meats into the neighborhood in a very low-overhead way,” says Connie Spreen, executive director of Experimental Station, which runs the weekly market. “We’re very committed to sustainable and organic foods.”

When 61st Street launched in 2008, that created a dilemma because sustainable and organic foods tend to be unsustainably expensive for the budgets of low- to moderate-income people. They set up electronic benefits transfer for the Illinois LINC card, but even that didn’t make the produce affordable for some residents.

Then a year ago, around the time Experimental Station discovered the market accepted more LINC purchases than any other in Illinois, a Connecticut foundation called Wholesome Wave offered to pilot a double-coupon program. “They allowed us to create a match for LINC users,” Spreen says. “We ended up being the experts on all things EBT- and LINC-related.”

The 61st Street Market expects to do between $17,000 and $18,000 in sales between LINC and the double-coupons, she says. Spreen figures the market draws about 500 people on sunny days, 250 on rainier ones. Situated on the Woodlawn-Hyde Park border, the market draws a diverse crowd.

“We very actively strive to bring together these communities that have been separated,” Spreen says. “It stimulates conversations. It creates a very integrated space. Food is one of those things that has brought people together.”

For those who haven’t eaten healthily in so long they’re almost not sure how — a problem the Experimental Station discovered when attempted to bring bags of fresh produce to people in the community — the cooking demonstrations and another feature called “market school” provide fresh ideas.

“The bags were refused because people literally did not know what to do with them,” Spreen says. “There are quite a few folks who have lost this knowledge of food culture.”

Elev8 schools seed gardens
The five schools participating in the Elev8 program have been at the forefront of efforts to bring community gardens into areas that could use the fresh produce.

Luis Bermudez, site director for Elev8 at Orozco, surveys the green and growing handiwork of his school's Seeds & Sprout program.

Ed Finkel

At Orozco Elementary in Pilsen, for example, four beds in front of the school on 18th Street and a dozen more set into a hillside behind the school were sprouting squash, eggplant, broccoli, chili peppers and panoply of flowers on a late September day.

With a $10,000 grant from Oprah’s Angels Network and volunteer bed-building help from WeFarm, Orozco started the after-school Seeds & Sprout program in fall 2009, nurturing seedlings in the classroom over the winter and planting them outside in the spring, says Luis Bermudez, site director for Elev8 at Orozco.

The program has attracted 12 to 15 consistent participants over the past year, with another five or 10 at each session, says Bermudez, who points out the “insane, huge” eggplants with particular pride. Parents have donated tomato plants to the effort, and the students have begun assembling food baskets for the needy. Fears that passersby would swipe large amounts of food have proved unfounded, although those who participate are welcome to harvest what they like.

“It’s open to anyone,” Bermudez says. “Everyone loves it. Parents were participating in the planting. … Kids were coming in the summertime and helping to water it. We’re trying to get people to eat more vegetables.”

Valerie Parris, who runs Seeds & Sprout, thinks it’s had that kind of effect on Orozco students. “They’re not likely to eat the vegetables in the lunch line,” she says. “But after they’ve invested all that time and energy, they want to try it.”

Parents at Orozco say they've been learning about urban agriculture right along with their teenagers.

Ed Finkel

Students who have become the most involved in the program get very passionate about gardening, Parris says. “I can’t express how much of an effect it’s had on them,” she says. “They’re coming out on Saturdays to work in the garden. To get them outside, doing something physical, and manual … so much learning happens in that informal time, and kids don’t realize they’re learning.”

Speaking through Bermudez’s interpretations, parents said the program taps into their roots – and grew new ones. Maria Rico, who’s from a farming town in Mexico, has told her daughter, a participant in the program, what and how they used to plant. “She liked the process of growing a plant, and the food growing from it,” Rico says, adding that her daughter is now mostly a vegetarian.

When bugs started snacking on plants in Elsa Mendez’s garden, she intended to use pesticides until her daughter urged otherwise. “The youths and parents are learning at the same time,” she says. “My children are eating more vegetables. She took vegetables she had never seen before, put them in the oven, and liked them.”

Washington Park could grow beyond gardens
Brandon Johnson looks out his car window at 12 acres of vacant land along both sides of the 5700-block of Perry along the Metra embankment and sees opportunity.

Executive director of the Washington Park Consortium, a lead agency in NCP, Johnson has guided an effort to build three community gardens in the neighborhood: the flagship at 56th and Indiana, and others at 59th and Wabash, and – to come in 2011 — at 58th and Michigan.

Until now, those have been volunteer projects for people in the neighborhood who want to help grow greens, watermelon, cabbage, beans, okra, kale, sunflowers, you name it. Everyone from toddlers to the elderly has pitched in, Johnson says of the effort, one of seven community gardening programs in NCP neighborhoods. Others have bloomed in South Chicago, Auburn Gresham, Englewood, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Logan Square.

Brandon Johnson, executive director of the Washington Park Consortium, has led an effort to bring three community gardens to the neighborhood — and is exploring commercial urban agriculture for 2011.

Ed Finkel

The consortium has partnered with Greater Metropolitan MB Church to run the effort at 59th and Wabash, Johnson says. “They’ve taken what they’ve grown and made it part of their food ministry” for the poor, he says. “During the height of the growing season, they were out there six days a week.”

A two-building apartment complex for women and children either escaping domestic abuse or battling substance abuse named Brand New Beginnings is partnering with the consortium on the effort at 58th and Michigan, which also includes a new playground recently built with assistance from KaBoom! (See the full story here.)

But Johnson and the consortium hope the educational and community-building groundwork that’s been laid will help Washington Park build its effort into a profitable urban agriculture enterprise starting in 2011. He and his agency are currently negotiating a lease on a 1.7-acre parcel along the Metra tracks to grow the effort, which would be run day-to-day by an agency called The Resource Center.

To lay the groundwork, the consortium partnered with the University of Chicago Office of Sustainability to conduct a feasibility study to help develop a business plan for the site and figure out “where to insert ourselves in the regional food system,” Johnson says. He cites the Illinois Food and Farms Task Force, which found that in spite of its agricultural base, the state loses a net $48 billion in food sales every year.

“Our urban agriculture [enterprise] will look to that $48 billion and see what amount of that leakage we can retain here in Washington Park,” he says. “We’re still debating the for-profit aspect. The commercial farm would sell to restaurant, and then sell to the community [at a farmers’ market] on a sliding scale. … We can cater our production to restaurants’ needs.”

During the fall and winter, the consortium is coordinating an educational and skill-building lecture series with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust on subjects like food preparation and canning, the health benefits of freshly grown food, and the environmental and economic impact of food choices. “It’s things like which pesticides not to use,” Johnson explains.

Wood St. grows vegetables – and career skills
Similar learning sprouts at Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood during a six-month training program that teaches young adults how to till the fields – and how the plant the seeds of a new and better life for themselves.

LaToya Wiseman, 29, has grown vegetables and career possibilities at Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood.

Ed Finkel

The nine-year-old program run by Growing Home took in 30 trainees this year, mostly through referrals from social service agencies, says Harry Rhodes, executive director. They spend the morning in the fields and the afternoon in the classroom learning about horticulture, soil science, health and nutrition, and marketing and sales. A couple will be hired permanently at the farm, and others might end up in the food business in some capacity, but the program teaches more transferable skills.

“We want to make sure that people, after they leave, in addition to operational skills, can grow on their own,” says Beth Gunzel, employment training manager. “A prime component is the job readiness training, which provides the experience to make people attractive to six or seven targeted industries.”

An indoor classroom provides space for cover letter and resume writing, as well as online job hunting and research on entrepreneurship and other training programs. Growing Home has contacts to provide in related fields like agriculture, food service, and grounds maintenance – as well as unrelated areas like construction, Gunzel says. “It’s a little bit for everyone,” she says. “Some people say, ‘I don’t know about farming,’ and they love it. Others already do it.”

“The job readiness component is crucial,” Rhodes says. “It’s going to help them with their life transformation.”

That’s what LaToya Wiseman, 29, had in mind for herself and her 7-year-old son when she enrolled in the program in 2010. A couple weeks before her Oct. 15 graduation, Wiseman proudly showed off the hoop-houses and open-air plots on the ¾-acre site where she and fellow trainees were growing parsley, radishes, lettuce, beets, spinach, basil — and nine different varieties of tomatoes.

Once the produce is harvested, she and others wash, weigh, bunch and bag each separate product to prepare them for area farmers’ markets like the Green City Market in Lincoln Park. On the Saturdays Wiseman traveled there, she arose at 4 a.m. to take the bus from South Shore in time for the 6 a.m. start time.

Run by Growing Home, the Wood Street Urban Farm connects those who complete its six-month program with job opportunities in fields related to food service and grounds maintenance — as well as less related areas like construction.

Ed Finkel

She arrived at Growing Home thanks to a referral from a local employment and training center that provided assistance on writing cover letters and resumes and building interviewing skills. Still living with her parents, Wiseman said to herself: “Hey LaToya, it’s time for you to turn your life around. You have a 7-year-old. Hanging around with your friends and partying isn’t going to get you an education, isn’t going to get you a house.”

Wiseman moved into her own apartment on Aug. 1 and dreams of becoming an entrepreneur; at present, she was interviewing for open positions at a nearby Target. Wiseman also has other ambitions: “Some day I do want to have my own house, and I want to teach my kids how to grow fruits and vegetables,” she says.

Opening their eyes with science
When Carlos De Jesus started teaching science at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park five or six years ago, he asked students at the alternative school to each bring a 2-liter bottle that he sliced up to create rudimentary hydroponic systems to plant bean seeds.

Within four days, the seeds started to sprout inside the rock wool the students placed inside the bottle pieces to hold the seeds in place; hydroponics involves growing plants without soil while still providing water and nutrients. “You could see the stem and leaves,” De Jesus says. “The students were fascinated by it.”

They went home for the summer, and “when they came back, there were leaves and beans all over,” he says. “They wanted to know what I had done. In reality, I hadn’t done anything. But they were impressed.”

The experience inspired De Jesus, now an assistant principal and urban agriculture program coordinator at the school, housed within the Puerto Rican Cultural Center on Division Street, to refashion the school’s science curriculum around integrated units that explore biology, chemistry and physics simultaneously within the context of urban agriculture.

Many students at Pedro Albizu Campos struggle with math and science, but the new curriculum has continued to water their academic growth. After the SUHI study and the food-desert report came out, De Jesus developed a project-based learning unit around the two interrelated pieces of research.

Students in the urban agriculture program at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park listen to Carlos DeJesus, assistant principal and urban ag coordinator, explain how best to sink hardy winter flowers into planters along the Paseo Boricua on Division Street.

Ed Finkel

“What is the relationship, and what can be done to address these issues?” he asked. One team of students suggested rooftop gardens. Another looked into developing empty lots, but at a cost of $200,000 that seemed prohibitive. “Those would be pretty expensive tomatoes,” De Jesus says. A third suggested developing on parkland, and a fourth said, “What if we build a greenhouse?”

The latter two ideas are coming into fruition. The school has found funding to build a greenhouse on the roof of its cafeteria, which should be completed in January, and the Chicago Park District is providing ½-acre of Humboldt Park for an edible garden – and might provide more down the road. Additional greenhouses could also sprout.

“The plan is to truly eradicate the food desert here and hopefully reduce diabetes, obesity and hypertension … and for this to be a model community for urban agriculture throughout the country,” De Jesus says.   

Students start germinating seeds in February in the school’s science classrooms, which feature scores of plastic cups with green peppers and cilantro in cubes of the rock wool, which has a consistency like fiberglass insulation, and beans growing in wet paper towels. The cups sit in hydroponic beds that are flooded twice a day through a pump that’s set to a timer.

During the fall, they’re learning about how seeds germinate in soil and how composting works, says teacher Diamond Montana, who was spending a blustery mid-October morning helping De Jesus instruct the students as they planted hardy flora in cement planters along the Paseo Boricua on Division.

“They will figure out ways to protect plants during the long winter season, how to harvest the seeds, how to store them, and how to build protective coverings like hoops,” Montana says. “They will look at thermodynamics and weather systems.”

De Jesus explains to the seven students gathered around that the ornamental kale and cabbage that they’re rooting in the soil will be flowering within a couple of weeks. “The soil is pretty soft,” he instructed. “Turning it over allows oxygen to get to the roots. Put the soil bed around” the base of each plant.

Students expressed enthusiasm about both the day’s activities and the curriculum more generally. “It’s hands-on and very productive,” says sophomore Guisell Sinaloa. “It’s very earthy. … I’m looking forward to seeing the healthier [composted] soil and comparing the soil we buy and the soil we make.”

Senior Jaleen Starling, who previously attended Roberto Clemente High School at the eastern end of the Paseo, remembers doing lab work but nothing quite so relevant to her daily life.

“When we get taught something, it’s never just for us to learn,” she says. “It’s something for us to connect to. … Until I came to this school, I didn’t pay attention to food.” When her family moves in the near future, Starling plans to start an organic garden in the backyard. “We’ve learned about pesticides and the affect it can have on your health,” she adds. “Organic food is hard to find and expensive. It’s better if you grow your own.”

To see a slideshow of these programs, please click here.

Posted in Education, Health, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Washington Park, Woodlawn

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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