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Chicago's Urban Agriculture Movement Expanding

By Lindsey Murphy and Mary Ellen Shoup

@RedLineProject

Posted: Monday, July 7, 2014

Chicago is undergoing an extensive urban agriculture movement along with growing awareness for the environmentally sustainable trend. But most of the gardens are hidden or camouflaged within the city’s landscape. 

The Chicago Urban Mapping Project, a multi-institutional collaboration, showed Chicago’s expanding urban agriculture sites. Using Google Earth, the study showed 4,648 food production sites covering 65 acres. | List

“They’re little gems hidden throughout the city,” said Megan Hoff the Vice President of DePaul’s Urban Farming Organization.

The collaboration reflected Chicago’s long-established city gardening scene and will provide publicly accessible information about urban agriculture.  Howard Rosing, the executive director of the Steans Center and Egan Urban Center at DePaul University, said he believes that Chicago will undergo major changes.

Those changes include “a continued rapid expansion of community gardens and urban farms” that will provide “a lot more employment in local and regional food production with more training programs,” Rosing said.

Neighborhoods like Englewood have gained attention from urban agriculture leaders because of its extensive vacant lots but limited commerce. Many urban agriculture sites are springing up on city’s South Side neighborhoods where there are more than 11,000 vacant lots totaling more than 800 acres. Transforming these areas into food production sites means stimulating community engagement and relieve food-desert stricken areas.

“The city has a lot of underutilized vacant spaces especially in neighborhoods that don’t have a strong sense of community," Hoff said. "It’s shown that if you put gardens in places where community is lacking, it really brings together people."

It plays into a larger visionary goal of Chicago transforming into an urban agri-business hub and center for agri-tourism, but not without fiscal and human labor commitment.  While some of the lots may cost $1 to own, it takes the work of one farmer to care for just a quarter-acre of land and $250,000 to get a half-acre land suitable for farming.

The development of an urban agriculture network aims to create local commerce through food distribution and farming jobs for South Side residents who are currently spending $20 million on food outside their neighborhoods. Cultivating an urban agriculture food network will shift a portion of that spending back to the neighborhoods’ local economy. 

“In theory, conversion of empty lots to community gardens is a good thing in my view, but this needs to happen with support from the communities where they exist and definitely not imposed by outside groups who have an agenda," Rousing said. "[They] may be good-hearted but [it] does not necessarily consider the community's interests.”

Another major challenge is communicating the long term benefits and opportunities to the South Side’s communities that are classified as food deserts with grocery stores located over a mile away.  

“Localizing the food system can potentially have tremendous benefits for expanding access to fresh food in underserved urban areas," Rousing said. "More broadly, if urban agriculture maintains its focus on producing primarily organically grown produce, we are talking about the potential to decrease toxins consumed that can have obvious health benefits."

New forms of distribution within the city will include more mobile produce vendors that reach underserved areas by retail food providers.

“The gardens are shown to reduce violence, combat obesity rates, and provide healthier options for residents,” Hoff said.

Although initially expensive, one South Side Chicago farm grew and sold more than 13,000 pounds of local, USDA Certified Organic produce totaling $45,000.

At the corner of South Perry Street and West 57th Place is the Perry Street Farm. At just under an acre, the farm has the potential to create five full-time jobs for residents of the struggling West Garfield neighborhood and sell 50,000 pounds of produce annually. 

The Perry Street farm located in Chicago's West Garfield neighborhood (Photo/Mary Ellen Shoup)
The Perry Street Farm located in Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood.
(Photo/Mary Ellen Shoup)

Aside from cultivating farmland, many urban agriculture organizations are training city farmers to apply their skills to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods.  Getting well-trained farmers is one of the first and most important steps to launching a successful gardening initiative. 

Farmers for Chicago is one of the organizations training South Side residents about urban agriculture. The program accepts applicants who submit a business plan in exchange for three years of support, earned income, and rights to the land.  Farmers for Chicago will train and educate 100 farmers annually once at full operation. 

The program will help Chicago reach its urban agriculture goals by creating a local food production supply and teaching marketable skills to individuals living in struggling neighborhoods. 

Rosing said he foresees a “significant expansion of degree programs and curriculum within higher education institutions, like DePaul.” The Urban Farming Organization at DePaul is educating the surrounding area about urban agriculture.

Organic community gardens like DePaul’s urban garden at the corner of Belden and Bissell avenues are raising awareness of sustainable farming methodologies and foster community development encouraging people to live healthier lives.

“We’re very conscious of what are consumers want,” Hoff said. DePaul recently started its first farmers market.

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