By Morgan McFall-Johnsen
Inside a once-abandoned warehouse on the South Side of Chicago, bags of mushrooms hang from aquaponics tanks and bins of compost fill a large room with a leaky ceiling. Outside, within a border of chain link fence and cracked pavement, eight hoop houses protect spinach, tomatoes and other vegetables from the coming winter.
A group of neighborhood teens stands in a circle upstairs doing team-building exercises as part of a youth corps program. In the morning, they learn about farmwork, environmental justice and nutrition; in the afternoon they work on building resumes and job interview skills.
This is Growing Power, one of many urban farms being touted as a solution to long-standing systemic issues in Chicago’s low-income communities. They seek to address unemployment, food insecurity and the welfare of neighborhood youth.
“We’ve seen it as a very empowering way for communities to create opportunities for themselves economically and health-wise and socially,” said William Burdett, director of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a coalition for sustainable farming in Chicago.
For the past 20 years, urban agricultural organizations like Growing Power, Advocates for Urban Agriculture, and Growing Home, a certified organic urban farm in Englewood, have been popping up all across Chicago.
The Chicago Zoning Ordinance recently adopted more lenient policies on urban agricultural practices like beekeeping and aquaponics. The changes were intended “to create and encourage programs and policies that sustain greater local food security and improve access to healthy food in underserved neighborhoods,” according to the city’s website.
In 2011, one in 10 Illinois households was food insecure, and about 20 percent of Chicago’s residents lived in “food deserts,” or “areas with little access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat,” according to a survey from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Most Chicago residents affected by food deserts are African American, according to a 2006 study by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group. The study also found that neighborhoods with poor access to fresh, healthy foods have a diabetes death rate more than twice the rate for other communities. They also exhibit higher rates of premature death due to cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as increased rates of obesity.
Chicago’s urban agricultural organizations hope to address issues of food insecurity and unemployment in underserved areas. Growing Home was invited to run an urban farm and job training program in Englewood when community groups Teamwork Englewood and LISC Chicago decided they wanted to make the neighborhood a food destination, not a food desert, said Kristin Miodonski, Growing Home’s outreach coordinator.
In 2006, with nine participants, Growing Home started their job training program meant to equip trainees for future employment opportunities. This year, 32 participants with barriers to employment, like former incarceration, completed the program, and 26 went on to find jobs.
“They’re then able to talk confidently about working in various sectors of the food service and also just generally transferrable skills with customer service,” Miodonski said.
Now, Englewood, a neighborhood that boasted Chicago’s highest murder rate as recently as 2012, has become a hub of agricultural activity. Kale, mustard greens, squash and carrots are sprouting left and right.
Participants work in customer service selling Growing Home’s produce at farmers’ markets and at a farmstand the organization holds outside its Englewood location every Wednesday. The farmstand sells produce at a 50 percent reduced price.
“It’s nice that people don’t have to travel really far to get really fresh produce,” Miodonski said. “They’re really happy that we’re here and selling produce that was grown right here.”
Canesha Foots, 23, joined the youth corps at Growing Power in 2011 to learn more about the importance of food. After two years working on the South Side, she applied for a job in general farm maintenance and has been watering, harvesting and cleaning produce ever since. Foots said that Growing Power teaches people about nutrition and keeps kids off the street, especially in the summertime.
“We have a lot of programs going on all throughout the year,” Foots said as she cleaned Swiss chard at an overflowing table of leafy greens. “I think they’re really engaged with the community.”
But many experts such as Alec Brownlow, an associate professor of geography at DePaul University who studies urban development, are concerned that urban agriculture can usher in gentrification, displacing low-income people and causing further problems for them.
“Without including local voices, even voices that may be ambivalent or disdainful… a lot of this ambition, a lot of these projects, a lot of these resources and this energy just end up fueling resentment… or go to waste,” Brownlow said.
Indeed, Euan Hague, co-director of the graduate program in Sustainable Urban Development at DePaul University, argues that urban agriculture is increasingly boosting real estate value because of a growing demand from people who have more resources to dedicate to it.
“Once a neighborhood becomes a focus of real estate interest… it’s only a matter of time, probably 20 to 30 years before the neighborhood is fundamentally transformed,” he said.
Jessi Quizar, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University who studies black-led urban agriculture in Detroit, said she has observed two separate urban agricultural movements: the black-led movement and the one led by primarily white outsiders who come into low-income communities. She said that the latter movement is often pursued without local input or knowledge of local needs.
“People from outside, that is a gentrifying force itself,” said Quizar. “Gentrification is alive and well in Chicago.”
But Burdett from Advocates for Urban Agriculture said that the positives of urban agriculture far outweigh any potential negatives. “If [urban gardens] are not coming from the community itself, they’re done very much in partnership with the community.” As far as catalysts of gentrification go, urban agriculture is “pretty darn low on the list,” he said.
Siobhan Beal, a farm maintenance worker at Growing Power, said the nonprofit’s executives are constantly talking to schools, churches and community centers in the area to ensure community involvement.
“It’s a safe space for a lot of teenagers,” she said. “A place where you get your food.”