COLLABORATION POST: Exploring Chicago’s urban agriculture scene

 

**NOTE** This post also appears on The Producer as part of a collaboration project.

Imagine living in a big city and being able to simply walk to your roof or community garden for fresh fruits and vegetables—no more pained trips to the grocery store only to find subpar-tasting produce.

Sound impossible? We thought so, too. But with the advent of community gardens and urban agriculture, this fantasy of freshness is a tangible (and delicious) possibility.

The thought of starting a garden in the middle of a bustling metropolitan epicenter may seem bizarre, but from community gardens to rooftop farms, people all around Chicago are finding ways to grow their own produce using the limited space the city has to offer.

Some of this gardening and agricultural work begins on a university level, where students can take classes to educate themselves on the practice. Dr. Alfredo Gomez-Beloz teaches classes at DePaul University related to urban agriculture for students interested in planting and sustainability. His background is in the study of edible and medicinal plants, and he’s worked in a variety of community gardens on the West Coast and in Chicago.

One of his spring quarter courses, Urban and Community Agriculture, focuses on building communities through local gardens.

“For the spring I’m looking at it’s going to be more of a practical, hands-on course, like how do you start a community garden? Why do you want to start a community garden? What’s important about a community garden?” Gomez-Beloz said. “Then, discussing social issues—like how does a community garden help a neighborhood?”

Gomez-Beloz added that community gardens can be particularly useful to communities that are located in food deserts, which the USDA defines as areas where at least 33 percent of the population resides more than one mile away from a supermarket or grocery store. In neighborhoods like these, access to fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by—a problem that community gardens help to alleviate.

“Most of the places that are around those food deserts are gas stations or food marts that don’t necessarily provide the widest variety of food, and it’s probably more expensive than a grocery store,” Gomez-Beloz said. “Community gardens help to provide some of that food—fresh food—to the participants and the community. … It empowers people to be in control of some of their food. It’s not going to provide everything that they need, but they can certainly have some of the benefits of having fresh food.”

Aside from his role as a professor, Gomez-Beloz is also the faculty advisor for DePaul’s Urban Farming Organization, or UFO.

According to their Facebook page, the organization aims “to educate the wider public about how to establish and enjoy sustainable food production systems.” They work in a garden located on Belden and Bissell, as well as the two greenhouses on top of DePaul’s McGowan South building. There, they harvest a variety of fruits and vegetables to sell and donate—plus a little extra to take home every once in a while.

Maddy Robertson, a sophomore at DePaul and one of UFO’s two secretaries, has been a part of the organization since her freshman year. She joined the group with very little gardening experience, but now knows how to plant a variety of vegetables and other plants. Her favorite to grow are home-grown tomatoes, which she insisted taste much better than their store-bought counterparts.

“I didn’t know how to grow anything before this, and now I have more than a basic understanding of how things grow, and it’s like a little community which is really nice,” she said.

These classes and organizations set students up for success by providing them with skills that they can take with them well past graduation, whether they decide to stick with community gardens or establish a career in urban agriculture. Robertson, for one, is pursuing a major in sustainability—though she stressed that students from any academic discipline are welcome to join

“Our president is actually a graphic design major,” she said, laughing.

In the greater Chicago community, students and aspiring urban agriculturalists can look to examples like Helen Cameron. She is one of the cofounders of Uncommon Ground, a sustainable restaurant that first opened as a storefront café in 1991. They now have two Chicago locations, one in Lakeview and one in Edgewater.

The Edgewater location has a rooftop farm that produced around 1,500 pounds of food last year for their restaurants. According to their website, the Midwest Organic Services Association certified it as the first organic rooftop farm in the U.S. in 2008.

“I work with a lot of farmers and I wanted to certify because I wanted to learn what that really meant. When I certify, they come and inspect—and they inspect—they basically make sure you’re not using any harmful chemicals,” Cameron said. “And that’s the thing for me, I don’t want any of that in my food stream. So we go through our inspections just fine because the whole purpose of this experiment is not to have that in our food stream.”

When we visited the garden in early March, many of the plants were still in their winter dormant stage, save for a few earnestly budding chive plants. But the dozens of planters, wall trellises and even a few currant bushes near the staircase leading up to the roof made it easy to see how expansive the space must look in the height of summer..

The amount of meticulous planning and research that goes into planning such a garden is evident to any visitor. Cameron’s passion for urban agriculture and organic farming drives her work, and helps her to teach others to understand the benefits of sustainable living.

“I was trying to be the example of the change I want to see in the world, and it’s something I’m very passionate about,” she said. “But to just have all that beautiful food at its peak of freshness and ripeness and flavor and nutrition… I mean, why wouldn’t you want to eat that way?”

For more information on Chicago’s community gardens, check out this map of NeighborSpace community garden locations throughout the city.

 

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