What can you buy with a dollar? An apple, a small fry from McDonald’s, 4 gumballs, a Coke, or… a plot of land fit to bloom into a revolutionary urban farm on Chicago’s South Side. Yep, it’s true. Six years ago, the City of Chicago sold the 2/3 acre plot in Englewood to Growing Home for one measly buck. And now, not only has the land transformed into a full-scale organic farm, but it has helped transform the neighborhood as well. Their mission is to utilize organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. In other words, they are uplifting Chicago’s neighborhoods, one vegetable at a time. All of this is made possible with the hard work of interns seeking transitional employment – many of whom have had troubles finding a job, sometimes due to former incarceration, a history of homelessness or substance abuse, or even simply a lack of education.
You might be thinking… This will never work. How will the harvest ever get picked? Those people are not trained in gardening – they have no experience as farmers. Well, consider this: in 2010, Growing Home’s Wood St. Urban Farm (the one I visited) grew and sold over 11,000 pounds of organic produce and brought in over $45,000 as income for the interns! They sell CSA Shares to community members, have a weekly market on Wood St., market their goods at Green City Market, and even sell their goods to Chicago restaurants like Big Bowl. If that’s enough to change your mind about the effectiveness of the program, you can stop reading now. But you probably shouldn’t, because there are so many other things that Growing Home is doing to help the community, it’s mind-boggling.
Not only does the full-time staff at Growing Home educate the interns about horticulture, soil preparation, food systems, and nutrition, but they also teach them ways to reintroduce themselves into the workforce with classes on job readiness, financial literacy, and personal narrative writing. As word spreads like Kudzu vines, there is a demand for more! In addition to the two other urban farms Growing Home runs, they just acquired another plot across the street, called Honore Street Farm. NeighborSpace, a land conservation group respected within the city bureaucracy, is helping them transform the land into the full-fledged farm the Wood St. location has become. (Speaking of connections with the City, executive director Harry Rhodes recently met with new mayor Rahm Emanuel.)
With the links they have made with influential Chicago groups, it looks as if Growing Home is well on their way to accomplishing their ultimate goal: to make enough money off of their social enterprises to be able to give food away to the community members (which they already do) and be financially sustainable. But how are they getting their name heard? Like so many budding businesses these days, social media has helped Growing Home, but it’s also word of mouth. “People just know about us,” said my tour guide.
When I asked her if she thought Growing Home was a good model for other cities, she agreed. And how could she not? There is no reason that other initiatives can’t take a lesson from the hard work and dedication of the place. Although financial victory for those with barriers to employment may be harder to grow than the little radishes on the plot, numbers don’t lie. Growing Home is a success from which we can all learn, no matter where we live.
Cheers to growth and harmony,
Summer 2012 Chicago Food Warrior
This post is from one of the interns in the Real Time Farms Food Warrior Internship Program. These interns are collecting data, pictures, and video on the growing practices of our nation’s farms, gathering food artisans’ stories, and documenting farmers markets. We all deserve to know where our food comes from! Boring legalese we feel we must include: this was written by a real live person who has their own opinions, which we value, but that do not necessary reflect, though they may (or may not), reflect the values and opinions of Real Time Farms. That is for you to guess and us to know.