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Consider the Tomato

Farming Chicago’s Urban Landscape

The Plant, CROP, and Growing Home are just a small sample of the city-wide urban farming initiatives taking root in Chicago. These groups are powered by good intentions, smart planning and support from city government; a powerful combination under any circumstances. If they continue with the momentum they already have, Chicago is on the cusp of becoming one of the first major urban areas to successfully reclaim previously unusable post-industrial landscapes and rezone into an agricultural hub.

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One can find tomatoes at Chicago’s chain grocery stores year-round. These tomatoes are uniformly round, bright red and flavorless. For many, this is simply the status-quo, they’ve never known a tomato to look or taste otherwise. Yet older consumers or those who frequent Farmers Markets know that tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, sizes and shapes and typically have a rich bounty of flavors, from sweet to salty depending on the varietal. Why then do the bland, mealy uniform tomatoes dominate Chicago shelves? The answer is a familiar refrain in this world: follow the money. Grocery store tomatoes have been bred for pest-resistance, shipping durability and shelf-life. Conspicuously absent on that list are flavor and nutritional value. As is always the case in these circumstances, the blame isn’t only on the producers of sub-par tomatoes, for they are reacting to market demands. These poor-quality tomatoes are consistently sold to an audience that hungrily consumes them and demands their appearance in winter months when they are out of season.

The example of tomatoes is a microcosm of the circumstances that lead to poor quality and availability of produce in major urban area. The food market in a city like Chicago is vigorously entangled in the food supply web of factory-farms, international retailers and government subsidy that keeps lackluster produce available 365 days a year. But even this sub-par service is only available to those in neighborhoods where profit is to be had. Chicago has become rightfully notorious for the existence of “food deserts,” areas with neighborhoods with no or distant grocery stores. “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” a 2006 report commissioned by LaSalle Bank, found that “living in a food desert can mean greater rates of obesity, premature death, and lower quality of life, especially for mothers and children.”  Eating good food is a matter of life and death, and many populations in Chicago are losing that fight.

This status quo is increasingly unacceptable to a growing number of farmers, community organizers, consumers and city planners. Across the city Farmers Markets, organic food co-ops and community gardens are sprouting up. Yet, more significantly, groups of forward-thinking visionaries are planning and executing industrial and community-scale projects that aim to fundamentally alter the understanding of, and access to, food in Chicago.

Instead of Chicago as an unbroken stretch of pavement, concrete and monolithic structures, imagine instead a blend of the natural and manmade. As an urban environment criss-crossed by swaths of green, open space. Places where citizens can stretch their legs, engage with nature and, perhaps, cultivate their own food. This is the utopian vision of Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP). This non-profit organization has taken major steps toward developing an orchard in Chicago. It will be nestled in a busy, quickly developing corner of Logan Square (at the southeast corner of Milwaukee Ave and Kedzie Boulevard.). This 1/4 acre strip will one day be home to 40-50 apple- and other fruit-bearing trees. Their mission is focused on preserving some increasingly rare apple tree varietals that are at the risk of going extinct, plus reintroducing native species like the Paw Paw tree, which once fed native communities. Vanessa Smith, board member and active volunteer for crop, emphasizes the role of community in this project. “We will be recruiting a huge volunteer army to help with maintenance, but also because if this orchard is in your neighborhood we want to you feel like you have ownership of it.”

CROP is currently mired in the long and sometimes torturous process of developing land in Chicago. But, Smith says that local government has been incredibly helpful and supportive of the project. With help from NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust dedicated to community gardens, crop was able to purchase the plot of land from the city for a symbolic $1. Via donations and other grants they have enough funding to tear up the asphalt and build what will be the multi-use park and orchard. Crop hopes to be planting the orchard by Spring 2014.

The ultimate function of crop is one of education and reappropriation of urban spaces. It has no intention of being an economically viable model, dependent as it is on the “gift” of the land and volunteers, and focused instead on education. There is a lingering sense that urban farming is a “hobby” of affluent and middle-class white people — one can purchase a $1,500 chicken coop from Williams and Sonoma’s agrarian line of urban farming products. While the importance of crop and small-scale community gardens cannot be understated, it will take more fundamental and large-scale projects to alter Chicago’s eating habits.

Brian Campbell, a crop scientist based in Colorado, puts the economics of urban farming succinctly:

Food systems, like everything else, are dictated by supply and demand. The ability to purchase supplies in bulk, invest in infrastructure, control delivery systems, perform extensive marketing, etc., allows large companies to outcompete small businesses.  In the same way that a mom and pop drugstore can’t offer lower prices than Wal-mart, csa (community supported agriculture) and family farms will not be able to offer lower food prices than Monsanto. … Affluent citizens in large cities have many options of healthy and exotic foods, while the poorest citizens have almost no options, which is the root of the problem.  It does not make financial sense to open grocery stores or even farmer’s markets in areas where nobody can afford the merchandise.

The aforementioned report on food deserts also found that these swaths of land where residents simply cannot find healthy food if they want it are almost universally low-income, largely African-American neighborhoods. In the last decade a number of groups have organized to help combat the food distribution disparity connected to poverty. Following the lead of Growing Home, a non-profit that has built operating urban farms in the Englewood and Back-of-Yards neighborhoods, the city of Chicago has developed the Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative. The plan proposes to redevelop 13 square miles of the South Side into urban farmland. The benefits would be myriad and extend beyond improved nutrition for nearby residents. They will also create agricultural jobs and attract eco-friendly housing, industry and other businesses. The hope is to engender a South Side renaissance based on economically sustainable agricultural practices in a neighborhood that, according to census data, has lost a quarter of its population in the last decade.

Eating well is about more than access to food, it is also connected to daily habits. That’s why the targets of educational efforts in food deserts are not adults who purchase the food, but their children who influence that decision. One of the largest steps toward the goal of changing eating behavior from the young up came last winter when the Emanuel administration granted $1 million dollars to The Kitchen Community. This non-profit builds learning gardens in underprivileged elementary schools across the country. Flush with city funds (leftover from nato grants), The Kitchen Community is building gardens in 80 South Side elementary schools. Darin Delay is project manager for Kitchen Community and he walked me through the goals of the project. Kitchen Community builds learning gardens, that are “Social environments where kids can decompress, but the bigger focus is on connecting kids to real food.” Kitchen Community chooses schools based on an algorithm that includes the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced fee lunches (an indicator of a low-income student body). The installation of the gardens becomes a community bonding event. The children and their parents help construct the beds, create a “bucket-brigade” to fill the beds with soil and participate in the planting of seeds and bulbs. The hope is that this will result in families who see the learning gardens as connected to their communities and the lessons learned are taken home and shared.

The final step in changing food distribution systems and eating habits of Chicagoans is to make some money. A majority of the urban farming and education initiatives citywide are funded and operated by generous donations and volunteer work. These initiatives can and will continue to have a great impact on the city, but their scope is limited until they aren’t only ecologically sustainable, but also economically. A solution to the problem may already be in the works. The Plant is an 83,000 sq.ft. former industrial food processing plant in Back-of-the-Yards, a once booming but now largely low-income neighborhood. Abandoned for years, The Plant was bought for a song and is now being converted into Chicago’s, and perhaps the world’s, first “net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation.” At the root of their system is aquaponic farming, where schools of tilapia are grown in vats and waste from the fish fertilizes plant beds. The produce is then sold to local restaurants, co-ops and Farmers Markets. When construction is complete The Plant will be producing it’s own energy via an anaerobic digester, which creates power by breaking down bio-material. It will also host  a series of mutually interdependent businesses, including a cafe, breweries, and mushroom farms who will share waste and organic by-products. The operators of The Plant are also dedicated to education and outreach within their community and host a regular series of classes and workshops connected to sustainable agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, their systems and processes are transparent to the public. The Plant wants to be more than an operating business center, but also a replicable model for other urban vertical farming systems. Currently, The Plant’s grounds and buildings are still rough and bear the traces of its post-industrial past. The plans (and funding) are in place and they are moving toward their goal of net-zero energy, closed-loop food production by leaps and bounds.

The Plant, CROP, and Growing Home are just a small sample of the city-wide urban farming initiatives taking root in Chicago. These groups are powered by good intentions, smart planning and support from city government; a powerful combination under any circumstances. If  they continue with the momentum they already have, Chicago is on the cusp of becoming one of the first major urban areas to successfully reclaim previously unusable post-industrial landscapes and rezone into an agricultural hub. The benefits would be tremendous, including a boost in employment opportunities, better nutrition for at-risk populations, decreased environmental impact from shipping in food from out of state, increased open space for residents, and finally, some delicious and nutritious locally-grown tomatoes everyone can enjoy.

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