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Fresh food brings neighborhood benefits

In three Chicago neighborhoods this summer, organic gardens, farmers markets and a small urban “farm” produced better nutrition -- and more -- for residents. Community leaders say the sources of fresh fruits and vegetables also improved neighborhood safety, beautification and even economic development.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

A boy enjoys a honeydew melon at Growing Home's new organic farm in Englewood. Urban farms can provide easier access to fresh produce in neighborhoods with few grocery stores. 

In South Chicago, a fruit and vegetable garden on the border of a racially divided area has forged relationships among diverse residents. In Englewood , an organic farm replaced an ugly vacant lot and became a job training site for ex-offenders and others.

And a farmer’s market in Logan Square became the first in Illinois to accept LINK cards (a modern, electronic version of Food Stamps), making its fresh produce available to new customers.

The three initiatives come at a time of rising concern over poor nutrition and obesity in low-income areas. A recent study identified many African-American communities in Chicago, including large sections of South Chicago and Englewood, as “food deserts” because of their poor access to grocery stores.

Those residing in food deserts were more likely to become obese, even after accounting for education and income. They were also significantly more likely to suffer from diabetes and heart disease and face premature death, the study found.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

Fresh produce is for sale from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. each Wednedsay at the Wood Street Urban Farm, 5814 S. Wood St. 

“It’s easy for people to say ‘You should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day,’ but that’s very difficult to do when you don’t have access to fresh produce,” says Chris Kierig of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children.

The City of Chicago views better access to local agriculture as a key for improving public health and the economy. It featured both the Englewood and Logan Square projects in a new report, called “Eat Local, Live Healthy,” which can be downloaded here.

LINK at Farmers Market

Learning that the city hoped to expand the use of LINK cards to farmers markets, the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce volunteered its own market as a test site.

It applied for federal recognition as a Food Stamp merchant and, with help from a nearby Citibank branch, installed the wireless technology needed to process LINK cards on July 1.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

Vendors from M's Organic Farm in Woodstock, Ill., make another sale at the Logan Square Farmer's Market.

By mid-September, the market had seen only modest use of the cards—a total of 25 purchases averaging just over $10 each. The price of produce may discourage some customers, thinks Paul Levin, the chamber’s executive director.

For example, a melon that cost $3 at the market might cost 98 cents at some grocery stores. But he expects the superior quality of the fresh-picked produce to win over more LINK-card customers once the service becomes more widely known.

The chamber also helped Growing Home, which runs the Englewood farm, figure out how to install LINK card service at its farm stand. No cards have been used at that site since the service began in mid-August, but there, too, staff expect an increase once it is better publicized.

As an added benefit, the wireless technology supporting LINK has made credit card purchases possible at the outdoor markets and given a small boost to profits. But Levin is most excited about the potential for his pilot to serve as a state-wide model.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

Four boys munch on organic tomatoes, one of the most popular crops this summer at the new Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood. 

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn intends to spread LINK card service to more than two dozen farmers markets around the state, according to Levin. “We’ve demonstrated that it’s possible,” he says. “It can work.”

Growing community in South Chicago
Four city lots at 8951 S. Brandon Ave. in South Chicago, once filled with weeds and broken glass, now burst with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. In spring 2004, the South Chicago Art Center transformed the eyesore into a community garden that has won third place in Mayor Daley’s Landscape Awards for two years running.

The garden is a regular food source for a dozen families who tend their own plots. The remaining plots serve as an educational site for children enrolled in art center programs, and staff distribute the extra produce to local organizations that serve low-income people.

The season’s first distribution, 30 one-gallon bags of greens, went to a women’s shelter, two churches, a retirement home – and even to some startled residents accosted on the sidewalk.

“It was funny to walk up to people randomly, ‘Hey, you want a bag of greens?’ ” says Charles DeShields, a program assistant for the center and a LISC/Chicago AmeriCorps member.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

Carlos Terrazo and Sabeeha Quereshi wash the greens they just harvested from South Chicago Art Center's community garden. The two were among the LISC Chicago AmeriCorps members who helped distribute free produce throughout the South Chicago neighborhood this summer. 

The garden serves the neighborhood in another way, says DeShields: as a “neutral place” that eases tensions between African Americans who live in subsidized housing on the garden’s west side and Mexican immigrants who reside on the east.

It even facilitates some cross-cultural culinary exchange. “One guy, Miguel, he had never eaten collard greens before,” DeShields recalls. And African American gardeners were intrigued by tomatillas, the small green tomatoes common in Mexican cooking, he adds. “A lot of people hadn’t talked to each other before starting the garden.”

Englewood farm changes lives
A year ago, 5814 S. Wood St. in Englewood was nothing but an empty lot covered with broken concrete and weeds. Now the space is filled with three hoop houses and the spicy aroma of Red Russian kale, green peppers, red onions, radishes and other organic produce.

The organic farm is Englewood's first, and the third for Growing Home, which operates another small plot in a neighboring community as well as a 10-acre site in downstate LaSalle County.

The non-profit provides transitional employment to low-income Chicagoans, many with a history of incarceration, homelessness or substance abuse.

Parris Brewer says the program changed his life. Returning to the workforce after 13 years in prison, a misstep sent him back again for several months, he says. Most ex-offenders don’t want to go back to the streets, he explains, “but they don’t feel that society accepts them back.”

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

A customer selects vegetables at the Logan Square Farmer's Market. Located at 3107 W. Logan Blvd., the market makes more than 600 sales each Sunday throughout the growing season.

Growing Home staff provided the necessary structure and moral support, explains Parris, who pauses from sweeping the Wood Street sidewalk on a hot September afternoon. “It taught me a whole lot of things,” he says, “how to be a manager, be productive, be on time.”

Since mid-March, Growing Home has enrolled 25 trainees to work six-hour days at its two urban sites. There they learn both agricultural skills and good work habits such as teamwork and punctuality.

The 30-week training includes job-readiness workshops by the Inspiration Corporation, a local non-profit, that cover goal setting, resume-writing and interviewing.

A “job developer” will even accompany a trainee on interviews and provide feedback, like: “You didn’t smile enough. You didn’t make eye contact,” says Orrin Williams, Growing Home’s employee training coordinator.

At least five of the 12 trainees who left the Wood Street program have found jobs, mostly in retail or manufacturing. Brewer, who finished his training in 2006, is one of three graduates currently employed by Growing Home.

The garden’s nutritional impact on its neighbors remains modest, so far. Fifteen to 30 customers drop by the farm stand each Wednesday afternoon, and some produce is shipped to a farmers market in Lincoln Park.

On one September afternoon, an elderly customer is disappointed at the selection and chides the staff for not selling “what black people eat,” namely turnips, corn and collard greens. She turns up her nose at some dragon kale.

The staff, which is predominantly African American, seems amused at the scolding but promises to continue an informal survey of the neighborhood before planting next year’s crop.

Soon after, a teacher from nearby Harper High stops in to see if the farm will accept student volunteers. Williams and Harry Rhodes, Growing Home’s executive director, give her their contact information and mention an upcoming partnership with Lindblom High that will teach students to start their own farmers’ market.

Growing Home is part of a network of non-profits seeking to develop an “urban agricultural district” as part of Englewood ’s quality-of-life plan. In the future, more abandoned lots in Englewood may be turned over to family gardeners and to program graduates like Parris Brewer, so they can start their own organic farming businesses, Rhodes believes.

“There’s a lot that could be happening,” he says.

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