Something is growing in a food desert on Chicago’s West Side. A farm designed, built, and managed by Windy City Harvest for the PCC Austin Family Health Center began operation in the spring to help provide more of what the challenged Austin neighborhood lacks—ready access to produce that is fresh, affordable, and nearby—and enable the center’s patients to more easily fill the prescription for healthy living they receive in the examination room: eat more fresh vegetables. Spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce grown at the farm will be sold on-site.
The project finds Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden urban agriculture and jobs-training program, partnered with an urban health provider, PCC Community Wellness Center, in paired missions of feeding communities and improving the health of those living in them. The Austin location is one of the PCC system’s 11 Chicago-area centers.
“We needed to come out of the four walls of our medical center and look at ways to give back to the community, get the community involved, explore ways to change the environment, and let people learn about gardening,” said Bob Urso, PCC president and CEO, explaining the project’s genesis. Funding comes from a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant awarded to PCC Wellness Community Center by the Humana Foundation.
The farm’s groundbreaking took place in October on a grassy vacant lot a few steps from PCC’s modern LEED Gold-certified building at Lake Street and Lotus Avenue. Called the PCC Austin Community Farm until neighborhood residents choose a permanent name, the 8,000-square-foot site comprises more than 20 raised beds that include plots where eight families each year can grow food for their own use, a hoophouse (similar to a greenhouse), and a small outdoor seating area surrounded by fruit trees for gatherings and relaxation. Housing flanks the 50-foot-wide, fenced-in farm on two sides, with a parking lot on the third and more homes across the street. Trains rumble by on the Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks a half block away.
The farm’s seasonal coordinator is Windy City Harvest’s Brittany Calendo, whose role dovetails with her background in public health and social work. “It’s exciting to look at the farm as a away of promoting health and preventing disease rather than just treating symptoms,” she said. Plans include monthly workshops on nutrition and gardening for neighbors and patients led by Windy City Harvest and PCC. “Preventive medicine is some of the best medicine,” agreed Humana spokesperson Cathryn Donaldson. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with PCC on this important initiative.” Looking ahead, Urso said he will know the farm has achieved success when he meets patients who say they feel healthier and whose chronic conditions are under control after learning to eat better.
While it is among Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, “Austin is beautiful,” Tyrise Brinson said of the people in the place where she grew up and lives now. Although no one believes the project can by itself meet the area’s produce needs or change lifelong eating habits overnight, “It breaks cycles within the community,” Brinson said. “It’s the beginning of a chain of beautiful events to come.”
This post by Helen K. Marshall appeared in the summer 2015 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden. ©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Two years ago—before his life took a head-spinning turn—Fernando Orozco was a 19-year-old juvenile offender in the Cook County Sheriff’s detention center. Recently, he completed work as a grower and crew leader on the Kraft Food campus in Northfield, Illinois, as part of a 13-week stint in Windy City Harvest Corps, an educational and transitional jobs program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden.
“I never thought I’d have a job like this where I have my own site and, not only that, the responsibility of caring for a crew of other guys,” Orozco said, on a break from work last summer in the 8,000-square-foot Kraft Makers Garden.
His crew included young men, ages 17 to 21, in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice system. The team grew enough tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and other produce to fill 55 boxes a week for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Other crops included cherries, beets, swiss chard, and watermelon, made pretty with plantings of scarlet runner beans and firecracker flowers, all grown in full view of Kraft employees as they worked out in the company gym. Produce from the site is donated to WIC centers and food pantries in the networks of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Orozco became interested in farming at the sheriff’s detention center, where he learned basic growing and organic practices in a program run by Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative. He went on to complete the nine-month Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program, earned a certificate in safe and sustainable urban agriculture, and interned at locations including chef Rick Bayless’s home garden in Chicago.
The Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program attracts a diverse group of students, including young adults with a history of incarceration and those with significant barriers to employment. “Just because they’re checking that box that says ‘felony offense’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people,” said Angela Mason, director of Windy City Harvest. “They just need someone to give them a chance and support them through those changes. ”
Now Orozco tells the former juvenile offenders with whom he works that they can leave their past behind. “I’m not the smartest person in the world,” he tells them, “but I saw an opportunity and I took it, and the same opportunity is happening to you guys. Are you going to take advantage?”
Orozco hopes to run his own farm some day. “But, for now, I’d be happy if I were here, doing the same thing, just perfecting the craft, growing food and helping people, growing people,” he said. “I can’t ask for a better job.”
This post was adapted from an article by Helen K. Marshall that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Can you remember a time when farmers’ markets were few and far between, and local food was nearly impossible to find, unless you grew it yourself?
Now farmers’ markets are popping up all across Illinois—in rural, suburban, and urban landscapes—providing healthy food to many communities.
According to the USDA, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has grown by 67 percent since 2008, with more than 8,000 markets and counting. Illinois ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers’ markets, with nearly 400 markets.
The Chicago Botanic Garden has been a part of the growth of farmers’ markets in Illinois. With the farmers’ market held at the Garden, along with the farm stand markets hosted at Windy City Harvest Youth Farm sites, we have contributed to the improved access of healthy, local food, especially in underserved neighborhoods of Chicago and North Chicago.
Throughout the summer, the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm program operates three farm stand markets as way to share its fresh, sustainably grown produce with the surrounding neighborhoods. These markets are set up on-site (or nearby) at each of our three Youth Farms. These farms are located in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, the South Side neighborhood of Washington Park, and the community of North Chicago/Waukegan. All of these communities are considered food deserts, as the access to fresh food is extremely limited.
The produce sold at Windy City Harvest Youth Farm markets is grown by the community for the community. Teenagers from local high schools are hired to work at the Youth Farms from May through October. They participate in all aspects of farming, including the growing, cooking, and marketing of the produce. Every week during the summer, the teens set up a farm stand to offer their fresh bounty to the community. The produce is sold at very affordable prices. Our markets accept food stamps and other government assistance benefits, so the food can be accessible to all members of the community.
Season after season, the benefits of these markets can be seen in both the teen workers and community. The teens learn business and customer service skills, practice their public speaking, and make positive connections in their community. One of our teen workers, Henry, said that this year’s opening market in North Chicago was the “best day of his life” because the participants nearly tripled their sales goal and broke the previous sales record for an opening day. A former participant of Science First (another wonderful Garden program), Henry was especially proud to host the program at the farm that day and assist with farm stand purchases. He even persuaded a young Science First participant to purchase black currants (later reporting that the Science First participant was eating the tart currants like candy).
We often hear from our market customers how grateful they are to purchase local, sustainably grown produce at an affordable price. They comment on how tasty and fresh our farm produce is compared to the produce available at their local grocery store, and they enjoy the farm tours and recipes provided by our teens. We often hear how our Youth Farms remind them of a farm they grew up on in Mississippi or Mexico.
Besides impacting the food system and community health at a local level, we also help shape food policy and accessibility statewide. I have had the privilege of representing the Chicago Botanic Garden on the Illinois Farmers Market Task Force and on the board of the Illinois Farmers Market Association. The Task Force—which consists of farmers, market managers, and public health officials—advises the Illinois Department of Public Health on statewide local food regulations. We also provide education to consumers and market managers on food safety at the market. The Illinois Farmers Market Association connects the farmers’ market community to resources and educational tools. Lately we have been training market managers on how to accept food stamps at their markets and working with government agencies to better inform food stamp recipients on the markets that accept those benefits.
©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
A summer spent at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is full of little joys and big surprises.
Interning at Windy City Harvest, we (Lesley and Rachel) started our time with grand plans to become farmers, urban agriculture pioneers, business owners, and horticulturists. We thought a summer at the parent organization—the Chicago Botanic Garden—learning about a vast collection of fruit and vegetable plant varieties would be a good way to jump-start our careers in the field.
But the weather and the Garden had a much different education for us in mind.
The summer’s weather has been very cool and wet: this is not ideal for some of the fruiting crops that most people prize. Cucumbers and squash are everywhere and right on schedule, but the bright red, heavy tomatoes we love to harvest this time of year are taking a bit longer to ripen in the cooler weather. And yet, the cooler weather has brought visitors to the Garden in friendly droves. These visitors (avid gardeners, young children, families, and globetrotters) have encouraged us to keep the garden in good shape throughout the season, and shared their own sense of wonder about fruits and vegetables.
Although the Chicago Botanic Garden has a separate garden—the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden—dedicated to working with children, many families bring their children to visit the Fruit & Vegetable Garden while they are here because of the broad range of fruit and vegetables we have on display. They can also learn about bees or growing watermelons. They may even spot toads here and there, if they have a quick eye.
Both of us have enjoyed showing children how carrots and potatoes grow, since those plants, specifically, look very different when they are growing than when they are on a plate. Getting the chance to talk to children about food and farming has affirmed our commitment to the work that lies ahead. Sharing our knowledge about growing healthy, sustainable food is one of the most important skills that we can develop as future farmers.
One warm July day, a group of 7- and 8-year-olds walked into the garden, where we happened to be cultivating “the three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash). They stopped in their tracks, entranced by the long ears of corn. “Do you know where popcorn comes from?” Rachel asked. The curious kids looked at one another, shrugged, and all eyes turned to the apprentice farmer. She asked the children to look around and spot the plant that might be responsible for the delicious snack. Suddenly, it dawned on a few of them, and they jumped and pointed, “It’s the corn! It’s the corn!” The corn plants took on a new significance when we were able to put them into context.
The diversity of plant life in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden attracts some of the most inquisitive, passionate, and skilled gardeners from around the globe. Patrons are constantly asking us questions about plant varieties, weather patterns, soil amendments, and why our eggplants don’t look like their eggplants. They want to know what cardoons taste like, or where we sell the gigantic Zephyr squash.
On a particularly lovely early morning, a couple from England pulled us aside and shared what they’ve been growing in their allotment garden across the pond. They were inspired by the fruits and vegetables they saw in the garden and wanted to share and compare notes about their own bounty at home.
“Have you ever made beetroot chutney?” they inquired. We looked at each other and shook our heads, but we wanted to know more. We had never heard of the recipe but were certainly intrigued by the sound of it. The couple explained that it was a savory dish consisting of sautéed beets, onions, herbs, and vinegar—lovely as a condiment or side dish. We were both inspired to call beets “beetroot” and make beetroot chutney after that conversation.
Herein lies one of the greatest gifts of our internship: we have been able to learn from experts, share knowledge with visitors, and get a lot of hands-on experience. We thought we might have a difficult time adjusting to the early morning hours and manual labor, but the joy we have experienced has definitely made it worthwhile. Our paths have crossed with so many interesting and amazing people—all in the name of fruits and vegetables.
Both of us are former educators who value the gifts of teaching and learning. Our previous classrooms had four walls that bound us to a specific space. We continue to teach and to learn. But our classroom looks a little different—no walls, open space, tons of possibilities—the Garden.
These experiences are not only for Windy City Harvest interns. Hop on your bike, take a walk, and plan a visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden or your local farm and talk to your gardener!
©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
The Windy City Harvest and SAVOR partnership replaced roof garden at McCormick Place in 2013 with vegetables. Farm coordinator Darius Jones estimates the 2014 season will yield 18,000 pounds of produce. Read about this story and other successes in Roof to Table (PDF) from Landscape Architecture Magazine’s August issue.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban youth outreach and development program, Green Youth Farm, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year!
What started as one lone staffer and 13 teens on 1.5 acres in the Lake County Forest Preserve has grown to a program with up to six sites all across Chicago and in Lake County, cultivating a new appreciation for plants and wholesome food in 90 young people a year, while teaching them job skills for future success! Here’s a year-end recap on the people and hard work that make up Green Youth Farm (GYF).
That “lone staffer” mentioned above is also known as our fearless leader and Green Youth Farm program founder, Angela Mason. Angie is also celebrating her ten-year anniversary at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Maybe you haven’t met her…that’s probably because Angie has kept herself pretty busy over the past ten years!
Some of the things she’s developed have been the Windy City Harvest (WCH) adult certificate program in sustainable urban agriculture; the Harvest Corps program for young male offenders to learn about gardening while incarcerated and then placed in transitional jobs with our programs post release; the Kraft Foods Garden in Northfield; and most recently, a new partnership with McCormick Place to turn its green roof into a food production site. If you see Angie around the Garden, grab her quick, because she walks really fast, even in heels!
Green Youth Farm hires program graduates! To date, we have two WCH graduates on staff, and have hired 15 Green Youth Farm graduates and WCH students as summer interns.
Green Youth Farm grows food! This season alone, on less than two acres of land, students and staff grew more than 25,000 pounds of sustainable fruits and vegetables.
Green Youth Farm feeds communities! Eighty percent of the food we grow is distributed back into the food desert communities where our farms are located. We sell at below-market value prices at our community farm stands and accept all types of federal benefits — the Illinois Link Card; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons — as payment. We also partner with WIC through the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County, the Lake County Health Department, and Sinai Health System to distribute boxes of food to moms with young children in need.
Green Youth Farm cooks! Teens learn that “all life depends on plants” by turning the plants they grow into delicious meals! Each week, a crew cooks a wholesome, plant-based meal for their peers, staff, and farm guests.
Green Youth Farm students are successful adults! Our alumni leave GYF with a sense of community responsibility, a greater appreciation for the environment, and an understanding of what it means to be successful in whatever career they choose for themselves. They carry these values with them through life, no matter what they choose to do…whether that’s college, a job, farming, or raising a family. We are proud of our GYF alums!
GYF inspires horticultural and food entrepreneurs! Former interns, growers, and coordinators have started businesses all over the United States. These include urban farms at tenspeedgreens.com, food trucks using local, sustainably grown food at luluslocaleatery.com, and sustainable floral design with fieldandflorist.com!
Green Youth Farm partners! Staff from Green Youth Farm works with more than 34 partners from all different kinds of organizations to help deliver quality programming in the communities we serve. Some of these include the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Park District, NeighborSpace, Chicago Public Schools, After School Matters, and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, Inc.
Green Youth Farm loves volunteers! This year, GYF saw the most dedicated crew of volunteers in its history…volunteers came together to support programming when teens were on-site and do the dirty work of farming when teens were back in school. If you are interested in learning more about the work we do at GYF to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life in our city’s youth, contact the Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer department!
©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Earlier this summer I stood on the rooftop of the McCormick Place convention center along Chicago’s lakefront and looked around. In front of me were vast rectangular trays of a monoculture of low yellow sedum and bare soil.
What I saw in my mind’s eye was bed after garden bed bursting with kale, collards, carrots, radishes, lettuces, peppers, beans, beets, tomatoes, and herbs. For in that space, as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s ongoing mission to promote sustainable gardening and to train Chicago residents for jobs in urban agriculture and green industries, we had just launched the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest.
In partnership with SAVOR…Chicago, the food service provider for McCormick Place, the Garden has created a 20,000-square-foot rooftop enterprise that will likely yield about 4,000 pounds of produce this year—its first—and double or triple that amount in subsequent years. Already, we are well on our way to that first half-season harvest.
Within this enormous rooftop garden we will expand our urban agriculture capabilities, create more hands-on training and job opportunities for our Windy City Harvest participants, and serve as a local source of fresh produce to this major international convention center. Later this summer, we expect the first of what will be many harvests in years to come—and many lives changed for the better.
The McCormick Place rooftop garden was designed and planted by Angela Mason, the Garden’s director of urban agriculture, and staff from our Windy City Harvest program, which offers the state’s first accredited urban agriculture certificate.
Over the past five years, Windy City Harvest has planted and maintained five acres of vegetable gardens at six Chicago locations. This newest rooftop garden, like the other sites, will become one of the program’s living laboratories, offering hands-on experience to Windy City Harvest students.
As I lingered on the rooftop that day, contemplating the garden-to-be in front of me amid the magnificent expanse of Chicago, I felt acutely my place as one of many people, within the Garden and well beyond, committed to the idea of making the world a better place, one step—or one garden bed—at a time.
©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Everyone one must eat. This basic need creates both common ground and opportunity for Myrna Vazquez and Sophie Krause, Chicago Botanic Garden interns bringing vegetables to market as they prepare for careers in environmental education.
“Food is more than a daily life necessity, it is a link to our cultures, economies, industries, and environments,” said Krause, who recently graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Because of this, I see food as a powerful tool for fostering a more environmentally literate society.”
The Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture certificate program, an accredited nine-month course offered in partnership with the Richard J. Daley College, is providing Krause and Vazquez a practical, hands-on education in sustainable urban agriculture. Six months of study at the college’s Arturo Velasquez Institute taught the two women such farming techniques as soil testing, prepping raised beds, seeding, and planting. Their knowledge is growing through a three-month internship in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
“I’m learning to grow beautiful, functional, and educational gardens,” said Vazquez, who worked in an after-school drug-prevention program before enrolling in the certificate program as part of a midlife career change. Vazquez says she’s absorbing all the Garden has to offer, including beekeeping, natural pest control and native plant gardening.
The women gain market-management skills when they sell the produce at the Garden’s bimonthly Farmers’ Markets, offered the first and third Sundays of the month through
October 30. “Nothing feels better than working hard to harvest for market, where I get to see the whole system come full circle—from planting a seed to feeding a customer and to helping the Windy City Harvest program grow,” Krause said. “Today’s food system demands a revival, and it feels good to be part of that process.”
©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Whenever I tell anyone that I work for the Chicago Botanic Garden, the first response I get is “Wow, you must have the best job ever!” (well, yes, in fact I do) followed quickly by “So, what do you do in the winter?” In response to this question, I have spent the last month or so keeping a photo journal of some winter days at Green Youth Farm.So what is it we do in the winter?
Even though everything looks like it is frozen solid, under hoophouses and low tunnels, tucked beneath coldframes and cozy in greenhouses, food continues to grow! Spinach, lettuce mix, and swiss chard will be harvested all winter long, while carrots, onions, and kale await warmer weather and contribute to an earlier spring harvest. Last year alone, Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest grew more than 80,000 pounds of produce—all on less than four acres of land. This number would not be possible without maximizing our short Chicago growing season with low-tech season extension.
In addition to growing produce we keep beehives, and last year we harvested more than 70 pounds of honey with our students (many of whom were scared silly of bees when they started the program). Over the winter, we need to check the bees to make sure they have enough food and are staying warm. We are happy to report these hives at our Washington Park location are buzzing!
Confession time: just like the home gardener, we professional gardeners face winter frustrations, too. I’m not proud to admit that we left a couple of hoses out in the garden, now full of frozen water. So yes, some of our wintertime is spent making up for summertime haste.
P.S. It was 14 degrees F. this day and the lock to the gate was frozen solid— so to add insult to injury, I had to scale the fence, get the hose, schlep the hose back over the fence…
P.P.S. Word to the wise: put the hose away in October, not February.WE TEACH
Every year, Community Gardening staff go out to corporations, schools, and garden clubs, as well as conferences and meetings (American Community Gardening Association, Good Food Fest, American Public Garden Association, etc.) spreading the gardening gospel. Last year alone, we reached more than 500 people outside the Chicago Botanic Garden. Our favorite event of the year is our own Facilitator Training program, where we teach folks interested in replicating the Green Youth Farm model more about what we do and how we do it. This year participants came all the way from Springfield!
The Green Youth Farm will hire 13 staff and more than 90 student participants. This year, we more than 50 applications for the three coordinator positions alone. In addition, each year the Green Youth Farm receives more than 250 applications from students from 15 different Chicago, North Chicago, and Waukegan high schools. It’s always fun reconnecting with former students during high-school recruiting visits.WE MEET
Between Windy City Harvest and The Green Youth Farm, the Community Gardening Department has more than 50 community partners who enable us to do the work we do outside the Chicago Botanic Garden, providing us space to grow on and work in, and program enhancements like art and access to Women, Infant and Children (WIC) clinics and coupons (we distributed almost 1,000 boxes of produce to the clinics last season). The winter is a great time to reconnect with all of these partners to debrief how last season went and think about how we can constantly improve on our work together.
While everyone’s job here at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a little different, each one of us is just like those bees in the hive—while the Garden might look peaceful from the outside, on the inside, we are all flapping our wings like crazy to stay warm and productive until spring shines her light on us once again. So until then, stay warm and think spring!!
©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org