Green Revolution: Low-income communities declare economic independence through agriculture

(Mehves Konuk)

(Mehves Konuk)

We talk a lot about urban agriculture at the Chicago Weekly. It’s become an office joke that no issue is a real CW issue without an urban farming piece (spoiler: expect another next week), and even our staff shirts feature a farmer. Some of it is tied to our role as an arts and culture publication: we’re interested in creativity, and a lot of good food and inspiration comes from reinventing the traditional farm in a nontraditional environment. But more is related to our base on the South Side: farming is work, hard work that produces real goods, and our picturesque farming operations and fresh farmers markets grow from very different principles than do stereotypical yuppie rooftop beehives and gardens. Farming in the city is a political issue, and one that has immediate potential to affect lives on the South Side.

The biggest farm on the South Side is Growing Home, which has an organic farm site on Wood Street in Englewood and another small organic plot and apiary in Back of the Yards. Growing Home trains homeless, previously incarcerated, and at-risk jobseekers to grow and sell organic produce for wages. It also offers GED prep courses and counseling to its interns. Angelic Organics maintains a learning center in Woodlawn that offers workshops in chicken raising, container gardening, and other small-scale farming efforts, and delivers organic produce in Hyde Park from its farm in Caledonia, Illinois. Many more informal collectives and opportunities exist scattered throughout the neighborhoods, from a Bridgeport experiment in vertical farming to the more-or-less organized community gardens that spring up in vacant lots across the city–some, like Growing Power’s garden in Jackson Park, with official sanction and professional help, and others, like the Experimental Station’s soon-to-be-destroyed garden in Woodlawn, as a way of reclaiming unused space by the community.

What measurable difference do these gardens and farms actually make in their communities? On one hand, that doesn’t matter; gardening is a hobby enjoyed by many, and it’s a curious display of privilege to say that residents of poor communities should only devote time and money to gardening if it materially benefits them. On the other, urban farms do provide tangible benefits. Graduates of Growing Home’s programs leave their farm work with new skills and new money, usually with significantly better job prospects than they did before joining the farm. Communities see jobs and outside investment enter their neighborhoods. Perhaps the most important, and most often overlooked, is that the farms provide their very own reason for existing: food.

A common criticism of the local food movement, especially when “local” means within the city limits, is that it is only affordable for the well-off. Gardening takes significant time and money, and any intensive farming effort requires starting capital and upkeep. Organic produce is generally more expensive than conventionally-grown vegetables, and markets like Whole Foods often take the “grown locally” stamp as an excuse to mark up prices. It’s true that produce grown in Chicago and sold at a farmers market may sometimes cost more than produce shipped in from Mexico and sold at Walmart. But that doesn’t mean that it is actually expensive, and the profit earned from that price difference goes back to the farm to fund initiatives and pay workers–something that directly benefits the community. Furthermore, urban farms and farmers markets provide a grocery vendor in neighborhoods in which there may be no fresh food stores, Walmart or otherwise, besides corner convenience stores.

From their South Side farms, Growing Home sells produce both at the Green City farmers market and at the new Englewood farmers market, providing food to customers at both ends of the economic spectrum. It’s unlikely that North Side consumers are driving to Englewood to buy their produce there, but the farmers market and on-site farm stand both do healthy business throughout the year. Community-supported agriculture boxes, or CSAs, also sell across the South Side; though subscriptions can be pricey, a family or neighbors banding together to receive huge deliveries of fresh, local food can be well worth it in a food desert.

Growing your own food can be an indulgence or an act of resistance. Taking over an abandoned lot and putting it to use can be defiantly productive; empowering the forgotten and abused of society is even now a radical act. When big corporations like Jewel refuse to set up shop in a South Side neighborhood, that community isn’t necessarily stranded. Whether by setting up backyard and median-strip victory gardens or fully-enclosed greenhouses, urban farms are a tool to send a well-tended and organically-grown “fuck you” to those who would keep even bread from the people.