Fresh Ideas

Vicki Yang and Matt Wan

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The Experimental Station at 6100 Blackstone Avenue has a knack for reinvention. From the very beginning, the Station has been marked by its ability to rise from the ashes. Artist Dan Peterman set up a studio there in 1987, in what was then a recycling center, and then purchased the building in 1994. He cleared out the mass of random recycling detritus, making space for artists and local businesses, including his own Blackstone Bicycle Works, an organization that has brought bikes and bike-repair skills to many University of Chicago students and Hyde Park and Woodlawn residents over the years.

But on April 25, 2001, a fire devastated the building, leaving only the brick exterior standing. Connie Spreen, Peterson’s wife and the station’s co-founder, recalls how on the day of the fire, a young boy stood looking at the wreckage. He said to her, “Connie, I’m sure glad that you and Dan aren’t the kind of people who pack up and leave.”

Before he spoke, Connie thought she was that kind of person.

She changed her mind and replied, “I’m glad I’m not.” And the couple began to clean up. Out of the smoking heap, Dan and Connie rebuilt their organization and renamed it the Experimental Station.

The commitment to rebuild, and all that has come from it, came from the people. “You can own the property but you don’t have control over the sense of community there,” said Connie. “That’s what we’re invested in.”

Responding to the needs and expectation of their neighbors, the Experimental Station has launched numerous programs since the fire, in hopes of serving, equally, the diverse communities around it. Over the years, this commitment has manifested itself in areas of art, culture and politics, through everything from community gardens to places for free legal consultations, to performance spaces for local theater groups. But perhaps the station’s greatest success has come through an unexpected medium: food.

Last Saturday, the 61st Street Farmer’s Market  opened in the lot wedged between Dorchester and Blackstone Avenues. Entering its fourth year, the market announced spring’s arrival with its bounty. Merchants stood at the 61st Street Farmers Market, waiting behind stalls brimming with bright green asparagus, pink rhubarb and the just-red hues of the season’s earliest tomatoes. And in return, spring brought its worst. The day was cold, gray, blustery; the sharp wind constantly knocked over signs and threatened to topple tent poles. The farmers stood and shivered, hoping that their tents wouldn’t fly away. And though there were few customers, the square was filled with the optimism of new beginnings. It was the first farmers market of the season, and the producers were ready and eager to give out free samples.

Fresh, local, organic, free-range; all those words were posted on signs around the market, as they’re posted in farmers markets all over the country. Three words, however, made certain signs stand out: “LINK Accepted Here.”

Those three words make the 61st Street Farmers Market more than just a place to buy produce. They represent the Experimental Station’s goal to help low-income families afford fresh, organic food. In the vegetable stand’s fight against the food desert, they are a call to arms. They are the sign of a new food culture, and for the Experimental Station, food culture is synonymous with community.

The LINK card is the Illinois version of the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which replaced the old system of food stamps that was founded in 1939. The actual stamps are gone; those who are eligible now receive money for food electronically on a debit card. Despite the change in method, the essential need for food assistance remains much the same: some estimate that as many as 1 in 8 Americans today rely on SNAP.

When the Experimental Station opened the 61st Street Farmers Market in 2008, it was one of the very few markets in the city to accept LINK cards, and they are now the city’s foremost experts on implementing food stamps in farmers markets. Last year, the Experimental Station helped 5 farmers markets out of the 17 operated by the City of Chicago set up the technology they need to accept Link cards. Spreen called it “the most successful pilot program of its size in the country.” With a $35,000 grant from the Department of Community Development, they bought EBT (Electronic Balance Transfer) machines, the devices that accept LINK cards, paid the transaction fees, and hired someone to oversee the EBTs in all five markets. Incidentally, the man they hired, Corey Chatman, was on the SNAP program until he got his job at the Experimental Station.

According to a USDA blog, Chicago farmers markets earned $28,944 in total revenue from EBT transactions in 2010. In a single day in October, the Daley Plaza market cashed in $1186 in SNAP credits and broke a record in the process.

The financial success of the LINK program in urban farmers markets offers convincing proof that the system is sustainable and is silencing skeptics. This year, ten Chicago farmers markets will accept LINK cards. According to Dennis Ryan, manager of the 61st Street Market, approximately 50 markets across the state offer LINK payment options as well. The Experimental Station has even taken their grassroots work to the level of political advocacy: Ryan co-wrote a bill in the Illinois legislature called the Farmers Market Technology Improvement Program Act (HB-4756), which increased state efforts to make more farmers markets open to people who rely on food subsidies.

At the farmer’s market, Spreen discussed the Experimental Station’s role in making fresh food more accessible in the local community. Sitting at a wooden table in the Station’s large, inviting kitchen, Spreen greeted the various people filtering in and out, who chatted and dropped off boxes.

She explained the Station’s first struggle, in choosing to develop the 61st Street Farmers Market: “You can make food available but not affordable, even on LINK.” So to encourage people to spend their very limited income on fresh produce, the Station implemented the Double Value Incentive program. Thanks to grants from the Wholesome Wave Foundation and the Leo S. Guthman Family Fund, for every purchase a customer makes with his or her LINK card on one market day, the Experimental Station will match up to $25 in credits on the card. Since the market is open every Saturday, that means that someone could get $100-125 worth of free food per month. To put this in perspective, according to the USDA, in 2009 the average SNAP household earned $711 in gross income and received $272 from SNAP per month. The city markets, which are open more frequently, will match $5 per day.

The next logistical issue the program faced was not whether they could provide affordable food for those in need, but whether people would eat it. The answer? Not if they don’t know how to cook. That’s why the farmers market offers cooking demos, and the Experimental Station teaches cooking classes and healthy eating workshops at local schools including the Carnegie and Fiske Elementary Schools, as well as Hyde Park High School.

Of course, one of the best educational tools is the market itself. One of the farmers for the market, Vicki Westerhoff of Genesis Growers, explains, “I feel a large part of what we do is educate members of the community about the value of vegetables and fruits, especially those grown organically and sustainably. We talk about how produce picked at its prime and taken to the market fresh from the field yields higher nutritive value. We also talk about food preparation so people know how to prepare what they buy, and perhaps encourage them to try new vegetables.” And it seems to be working. From 2008 to 2010, the Station has seen a steady increase of shoppers from outside of the University community. This is especially true for Woodlawn residents, who, Ryan says now attend the market with equal frequency as Hyde Parkers.

The Experimental Station doesn’t stop with its 61st Street Market. It has an entire organizational branch devoted to “food culture,” including the market, a community garden, the Woodlawn Buying Club, where residents can buy organic and natural food in bulk, and a wood-fired oven in the Station’s kitchen. It’s all part of the Station’s commitment to building a “food culture” in their community.

“How we grow our food and feed our community affects everything,” Ryan notes. “It impacts our health, our economy, our social interaction with each other. In most cultures around the world, food is the center of everything–family, community, fun. Food should not be a status symbol. Food is the key to life. If we connect our community with the best food available, make it affordable and ensure we all know the value of that food, our communities will thrive.”

But the last several years have dealt several blows to the culture that Peterman, Spreen, and the rest of the community have nurtured, recalling memories of the hard times our of which the Station was born. In an unfortunate series of events, the University demolished the 61st Street Garden to lay the foundations for the new Chicago Theological Seminary building, a trailer caught fire on their property in August, and then Backstory Café–the Station’s social center, which served homemade, organic soups, sandwiches, and pastries–closed abruptly, citing a shortage of money and “entrepreneurial energy.”

But as time has shown, the energy that has sustained the Experimental Station will again be renewed. After it was razed, the 61st Street Community Garden moved one block over to 62nd and volunteers got back to work. And the buzz that surrounded the popular brunch spot Backstory Café will likely be transferred to the raw, vegetarian café, B’Gabs Goodies, which will soon open in its place. The Experimental Station has not only fed the community, but has also fed a kind of community that will outlast any of its programs or structures. It’s not the kind of place to pack up and leave.

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