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Two people kneeled down harvesting green crops inside a greenhouse.
Growing Home is tackling food insecurity.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

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Inside the Chicago Urban Farm Cultivating the Means to Fight Food Insecurity

Urban farm Growing Home is working to shrink South Side food deserts

Inside an Englewood hoop house, dozens of tomato plants climb about seven feet into the air. Various greens, eggplants, peppers, and more sprout from the soil around them. A few participants in Growing Home’s workforce development program haul up vegetables from the ground as the intense summer sun beams down. They’re helping enact a plan that aims to transform both the neighborhood’s food and economic circumstances

This is just one of four growing sites cultivated by the nonprofit Growing Home. Some, like this one, grow tomatoes. Others grow greens. Growing Home — which has been cultivating since 2006 on the South Side — has been in a pilot partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository since June to provide sustainable and fresh food to those in need, while helping to grow the farm’s reach within the Englewood community.

A fence in front of a building with leaves growing and a colorful sign reading “Growing Home.”

Les Brown — who also started the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless — founded Growing Home in 1992 after perceiving an uptick in the number of unhoused people in downtown Chicago. A farm downstate was soon established, with the employment training program coming online in 2002. Today, the organization counts 17 full-time employees and a 29-member board, and has hosted more than 100 volunteers in 2021.

The swelling number of people experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic has put a strain on an already-fragile food supply chain, and local and national nonprofits have been angling to help. Federal assistance, too, has increased: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, just one of the federal programs aiding families and individuals experiencing food insecurity, counted more than 2 million people in Illinois accessing benefits in April 2021. That’s a 6 percent increase over 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

Just as other institutions have adjusted course during the past 17 months, Growing Home and the Greater Chicago Food Depository have been redefining their respective missions. The depository in particular has been trying to expand its reach. In addition to its partnership with Growing Home, for example, this year it will receive donations from Pitchfork Music Festival, slated for September 10 to 12.

Growing Home offers job training to about 80 members of the neighborhood each year. But finding a distribution mechanism for what it grows is one of the reasons it’s partnered with the depository. Along with the farm-growing sites, Growing Home also owns an undeveloped space used for both a community garden and events.

“There’re stages of development to get a site going and then to continue to perfect the space,” says Growing Home’s farm and program coordinator Ezra Lee, while walking through a plot near West 59th and South Honore streets. “Currently, the plan for the site in development is a little more mixed-use. It’s not going to be strictly growing space. It’s going to be spots with blocked-off grow boxes, so people can have individual plots to grow on.”

A wide shot of a green house with crops.

Lee calls the grow boxes effective teaching tools. And providing the Englewood community access to them could help serve as a tool of revitalization while also fostering a better understanding of dietary necessities.

Brendan Kitt, the depository’s director of food acquisition, says his group is purchasing more food than at any other time in its 42-year history, in addition to receiving assistance directly from the government. But the pandemic has put a strain on supply chains, and certain foods and commodities have become less readily available. This has prompted the depository to investigate local partnerships.

“I think we’re really evolving in terms of our philosophy on that this year, thinking about what effect our purchasing dollars can have in the communities that we serve,” Kitt says. “I think we’ve really gotten away from the idea that more pounds of food equals success, and we’re starting to think more about where our dollars can go that is most effective.”

If produce is sourced locally, Kitt and his colleagues realized, the organization’s purchasing dollars would stay in the Chicago region, benefit area businesses and their employees, and increase the likelihood that people receiving assistance would have access to fresher food.

This fiscal year, about 54 percent of the produce on the Food Depository’s online menu for partners — which include food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters — will be sourced from local farms, wholesalers, and distributors. That’s in contrast to 14 percent in 2020 and 19 percent in 2021. (The food the depository receives directly from federal programs is not factored into those figures.)

Three people working on a farm, harvesting produce from the ground.
A man carrying a basket full of produce to a cart.

“As an organization, we’ve identified these really high-priority communities in Chicago that have been disproportionately affected by food insecurity and food justice,” Kitt says. “So, we’ve not only been focusing our distribution efforts there, but also thinking about the vendors that could potentially be uplifted in those communities.”

Growing Home, located in Englewood, is one of those vendors. But, says Kitt, its workforce development program — which teams with area employers to place neighborhood participants in food industry and customer service positions, and the trades — sets it apart.

“They’re taking people from the community and teaching them job skills and [helping them find] placements, which is similar to the mission that we have at [the depository].”

At Growing Home, those missions are inextricably intertwined. During a 12-week job-training program, production assistants also take workshops on resume writing and professional communication skills, and learn how everything they do on the farm can — and will — transfer to other workplace scenarios. Everyone’s got to keep their desk in at least reputable shape in the office, and the food processing room at the farm needs to be kept pristine.

While helping to supply pantries with food to distribute can ameliorate immediate concerns, addressing the lack of opportunity for residents in Englewood is an overarching goal for the organization.

“Let’s just be honest. Giving people something for free today does not deal with the issue. That’s why the job-training program is so important. That’s why you’ve got to run [the farm and job-training programs] together,” says Janelle St. John, Growing Home’s executive director since 2020. “If people have money in their pocket, they tend to make better choices about what they eat, because they could afford it. What the farm is, it’s a tactic to get people to some sense of economic and financial stability.”

A dark-skinned bald headed man using a hose to clean up a cart full of fresh veggies.
Freshly harvested beets being placed in a cardboard box by a person wearing a black mask and baseball cap.

Centering the farm and training program in the Englewood neighborhood — where the pandemic has exacerbated historic disparities in economic development, job opportunities, and access to fresh and healthy food — has become even more important, St. John says.

When she took over Growing Home’s top post, St. John asked her staff if they felt Growing Home was a nonprofit based in Englewood or an Englewood nonprofit. At the time, about 80 percent of the food they were producing was being taken out of the area, some being sold at farmers markets across the city.

The consensus was that the group was an Englewood nonprofit. After that, the organization stopped trucking its wares up to the Logan Square Farmers Market. Now, more than half of the produce pulled up from the ground or plucked from those willowy tomato plants stays in Englewood, where it’s sold at a farm stand or distributed through the pilot partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and other community-supported agriculture programs.

With this redoubled commitment to the neighborhood, the Greater Chicago Food Depository partnership helps the farm more easily spread its harvest. Some food still leaves the neighborhood, creating opportunities for even more Chicagoans to invest in Greater Englewood through Growing Home’s social enterprise.

“The food depository is a tactic to deal with food insecurity. And so that’s what I explained to the team: What is food [security]? It’s access to affordable, healthy options. The question we have to ask ourselves is, how can we fill that gap?” St. John says. “People think by standing on the street corner giving away free food; this is not how you do it. The reality is, produce is probably not the top of people’s priorities. But if we can partner with someone who’s already there and filling that space, and people are already coming to pick up food? Why not put recipe cards in their order?”

Freshly harvested carrots on a scale

The recipes work to address a gap in knowledge that St. John and others at Growing Home have seen: Compounding the lack of available healthy food in the neighborhood is that some residents simply don’t know how to prepare produce like kale when it’s at hand. Or if their families would even enjoy it.

St. John paused for a moment. “You know what was very important in my communication with the food depository? I wanted the food to be fresh. Whether it is given to them for free or they paid for it, it should look respectable.”

One of the new avenues open to Growing Home since its partnership with the depository began earlier this summer and just around the corner, at the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Center on West 69th Street.

“Yesterday, the stuff that we got was just picked from the ground the day before,” says Capt. AJ Zimmerman, who oversees the center. “So, people are getting fresh, great-quality stuff. And I think it also helped people to understand a lot of times when they are purchasing things from some of the bigger markets, they are not getting the freshest stuff. A lot of food is only lasting a couple of days and expiring. I think it’s helping people to understand what a fresh-food desert truly is.”

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