Urban Ag as Community & Economic Development Tour

Staff from the Neighborhood Services, Planning and Development Departments, and Council member Will Kyles attended a tour of Urban Agriculture sites in Chicago on Friday, March 7.  The tour was organized by Prosperity Gardens with participation from University of Illinois Extension, Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, Randolph Street Community Garden, and more.  Attendees toured three locations that use agriculture as a tool to facilitate education and job training in addition to providing access to healthy, locally grown foods.

Chicago Public High School for Agriculture is a magnet school.  Half of the students are from the neighborhood and the other half are selected through a lottery system.  The school is sited on over 70 acres and includes crop land, space for livestock, a greenhouse for vegetable production, and a par-three golf course.  The school offers six pathways or concentrations, including Ag finance, animal sciences, food science, and horticulture and each student selects a concentration during their junior year.  Each student is required to have community service hours which are spent running the market stand, taking care of crops and livestock, or maintaining the par-three golf course on school grounds.

Growing Home is a not for profit organization that “changes lives and communities with organic agriculture – through job training, social enterprise, and community development.”  The group toured the Englewood location, which is located on two vacant lots donated by the City of Chicago.  They grow vegetables in hoop houses on the site, then process, pack, and sell them at the Lincoln Park Farmers Market and through shares of a community supported agriculture program.  They also sell produce at the Englewood farm stand on Wednesdays.  In addition to job training, their mission includes addressing food insecurity and food access.  Products at the Englewood farm stand sells for 60% of the cost of products at the Lincoln Park Farmers Market in order to be affordable to neighborhood residents.

Growing Home offers 40 job training internships each year, in two sessions.  Applicants must be individuals who have challenges in obtaining long-term employment, including homelessness or housing insecurity, incarceration, or other life challenges.  Their program has an 83% placement rate for their graduates, placing them in jobs that are required to pay more than minimum wage and offer benefits.

Growing Power began in Milwaukee over 20 years ago and recently expanded to Chicago.  They are focused on indoor gardening that uses the vacant building to its fullest potential.  This includes mushrooms, micro-greens, such as bean and pea sprouts, aquaponics, and vermicomposting.  The organization takes food scraps from Chicago businesses and processes them into compost in bins and hoop houses in the former parking lot of the facility.  They also use vermicomposting (or worm composting) to create worm castings that are rich in nutrients for gardening.  This compost sells for a premium price to consumers.  The organization is also experimenting with aquaponics, or a process that uses composted fish excrement to grow mushrooms while also raising fish for sale.

The funds generated through these efforts fund job training programs for youth, underemployed, and unemployed Chicagoans.  This tour provided a good example of how a vacant indoor space can be used for urban agriculture.

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