Growing Home: Fresh Veggies for Everyone

Once again a sign of life has shown up in the form of food; delicious, locally grown food.  I first mentioned the folks at Growing Home last fall when Maggie and I visited their rural farm.  A “rural farm” may sound like an oxymoron, but Growing Home also has a couple of ingenious urban farms within Chicago’s city limits.  This report from WTTW about a recent visit by Illinois policy makers to one of the city farms is a good introduction to the potential of urban farming.

[Update 12/8: I couldn’t figure out how to keep the embedded video from automatically playing.  To view the video visit the WTTW website.]

On a related note, after watching Food Inc this week* I am more convinced than ever that the issues swirling around food production and consumption in America are absolutely ones of justice.  In a future post I’d like to suggest a few reasons why more Christians could begin working for ways of farming and eating that reflect our theology, specifically our beliefs about God’s creation and God’s justice.

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*Don’t watch this documentary while eating dinner.  Trust me.

searching for tomatoes in a food desert

My friend Esther Kang is the editor of Chicago Magazine online and recently sent me this fascinating article from the magazine about food deserts in Chicago.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the article’s author says this about food deserts,

A cluster of blocks without a corner grocery doesn’t by itself warrant the label; an entire neighborhood, or a cluster of neighborhoods, without a mainstream grocery store—such as a Jewel, a Treasure Island, or an Aldi—almost certainly does.

Three such areas have been identified in Chicago, totaling 44 square miles, including an area of the Bronzeville neighborhood where where we are planting a church.  Lack of access to healthy and affordable food is generally agreed to be a significant problem, but not everyone appreciates the food desert label.  An instructor at the UIC’s College of Applied Health Sciences is quoted in the article

“As a researcher, if ‘food desert’ is something policymakers hear and want to do something about, I’m in support of it. But as a community member, it’s another negative thing about the place where I live.”

Terminology aside, the negative impact of food deserts is devastating.  While many of these neighborhoods don’t have a grocery store, there are plenty of fast food restaurants and convenience stores whose products could hardly be described as healthy.  It’s not hard to understand why cases of cancer and cardiovascular disease are significantly higher in these neighborhoods.

Then there is the economic impact.  Have you ever compared prices at your grocery store with the local convenience store?  It’s a depressing irony that those living in lower income neighborhoods often pay more for their food than do those who live in more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs.  Additionally, when those living within a food desert travel to a grocery store (a sometimes time consuming task on public transit) the money they spend will not be reinvested in their own neighborhoods, the very places most in need of economic investment.

When we lived in the suburbs it was not uncommon to hear complaints (sometimes from my own mouth) about having to visit multiple grocery stores in order to find the best deals or specific items: Jewel for the staples, Valle’s for produce, and Trader Joe’s for wine and snacks.  The inconvenience of choice masks the significant health and economic benefits that such choices provide.

BronzevilleCommunityMarketThe article does point out some signs of life.  Low-price grocers like Aldi are realizing these under-served markets.  Creative non-profits like God’s Gang and Growing Home (whose farm in Marseilles Maggie and I visited last summer) are mixing social services with local food production.  Farmers markets are also popping up in places like Bronzeville, Englewood, and Woodlawn.

These efforts are just scratching the surface of a systemic injustice, but they are hopeful starting points.  Those of us with the ability to travel easily outside of our neighborhoods can choose to spend our food dollars strategically, supporting markets and grocers within undeserved areas of our city.

For some personal stories from the Bronzeville Community Market, check out Esther’s photos and interviews that accompany the article.

growing home: a day at the farm

This summer we have done some produce shopping at Chicago’s Green City Market, a huge outdoor farmer’s market in Lincoln Park.  One of the organizations we’ve become acquainted with at the market (thanks solely to my wife’s inquisitive nature) is Growing Home.  On Saturday we drove out to Growing Home’s farm for their Harvest Fest.

For $20 we got to tour the farm, listen to a talk about sustainable farming, watch a cooking demonstration with fresh produce, pick as much produce as we wanted (tomatoes, basil, and raspberries), and eat some very tasty food from the farm.

The thing that first attracted Maggie to Growing Home was their unique mission.

Growing Home provides job training for homeless and low-income individuals in Chicago through a social enterprise business based on organic agriculture. Our program provides experiential learning opportunities and employment in the horticulture field as well as a unique job readiness curriculum that helps reintroduces participants back into the workforce.

On Saturday we spoke with the employees and participants of this unique program.  From our limited conversations it certainly seems that those involved with Growing Home are very quality people.  If I recall correctly, each week participants spend two days working on the farm.  They also receive other job training skills with the purpose of quickly finding employment elsewhere.  Growing Home basically serves as a stepping stone from homelessness (or other dire circumstances) to stable employment.

Two things stood out to me as we listened to the Growing Home folks talk.  First, what they do is very hard work.  There’s nothing romantic about running an organic, nonprofit farm.  80 hour work weeks are the norm.  The added layer of working with at-risk populations adds to the difficulty of their mission.  Secondly, Growing Home is a beautiful sign of life.  The simultaneous care for people and earth is so attractive and, without being trite, inspiring.

Intrigued?  Check out Growing Home’s website.  You can also sink your teeth into some of their delicious produce at a Chicago farmers market.  Or, consider joining their CSA next year to receive a box of in-season produce each week.

Anyone aware of other organizations like this in Chicago or elsewhere?

One word of warning.  If you ever visit Growing Home’s farm and decide to pick some raspberries, you will have to keep your eyes open for these spiders.  Who knew berry picking could be so exciting?