Recent Articles About Urban Agriculture

Someone shouts “bingo!” and the crowd at Chicago’s the Hideout hoots and hollers. It’s Wednesday night, and this small but legendary bar and music venue has been transformed into a hub for community gardeners and the produce they grow.

For 12 weeks each summer, the Hideout is home to Veggie Bingo and its cult following of community garden supporters. The fees, $4 a card or three for $10, benefit a different community garden each week and have helped gardens purchase tools and supplies including soil, seeds, sheds, compost, benches, and scholarships for young workers. On this July evening, the numbers are being sung for supporters of the Fulton Street Flower and Vegetable Garden located in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Some of the players are regulars while others have come to the Hideout to try Veggie Bingo for the first time. Regular Jenny Hines, who lives in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, admits to loving the offbeat event, calling it “the best day of the week!”

“I love the spirit in here and the idea that it’s a gathering to support food and community gardens,” Hines says.


This unusual way of supporting an estimated 110 of Chicago’s nearly 800 community gardens grew out of a winter ritual held at the Hideout known as Soup & Bread. During the economic downturn in 2009, Tim and Katie Tuten, two of the bar’s four owners, said it might be time once again for soup lines. In response, Hideout bartender Martha Bayne, who also worked as a food writer, invited 12 local chefs to prepare their favorite soups weekly. Gaines bought an army of crockpots and added bread bakers as well. Every winter since then, patrons have come to eat soup and bread once a week, all winter long—and all of their cash donations have supported local food pantries.

The Hideout launched Veggie Bingo as a way to keep the goodwill—and support of community meal efforts—flowing into the summer. NeighborSpace, the nonprofit urban land trust that supports community gardens, sponsors the bingo night, and pools and divides proceeds among the dozen gardens chosen for the season. Robin Cline, assistant director of NeighborSpace estimates one night of bingo can bring in anywhere from $300 to $1,000. Since its founding, Veggie Bingo’s popularity has grown steadily; on some nights, it attracts as many as 125 to 130 players.

For prizes, community gardens donate items ranging from locally grown fruits and produce to preserves made from harvests, and organizers hand out seeds and herb starts as well. Small, sustainable food businesses, such as local coffee roasters, bakeries, and craft breweries, contribute prizes too. The night I was there, a couple who were moving even added some of their furniture to the mix.

Veggie Bingo is not the game of church basements. On this night, performer Lily Emerson and her husband Charlie Malave deliver the numbers on the Hideout’s stage by singing little ditties, say, about B-49. Local celebrities clamor to partake. Jon Langford, lead singer of the punk band the Mekons, once led the calls with his rendition of Marxist Bingo.


Somewhat of a small food fest in its own right, people coming to play bring friends and hold small potlucks at their tables. Along with local beers, they bring chips and hummus, small salads, and large bags of cherries. Because indoor space is limited, players spill outside onto the tables of a small patio as well.

In addition to being a fun and festive time, Veggie Bingo enables gardens to fund improvements that further support their communities. Angela and Sam Taylor, who oversee and maintain the 50- by 150-foot Fulton Street garden plot, said they used the $500 they received last year from Veggie Bingo through NeighborSpace to purchase solar panels for the greenhouse.

“Community gardens do more than just grow food,” Angela says as she lines up her bingo cards. “Community gardens grow babies and adults. They have created marriages and friendships.” Each season, she says, the Fulton garden yields greens, lettuce, beans, asparagus, zucchini, and flowers, some of which the organizers share with senior residents and sell at their market.

Through grants, Angela continues, workers train young people in the neighborhood in how to grow their own food and tend to a garden, giving them entrepreneurial skills. In addition, Fulton Street is teaming up with other local gardens to form the Lake and Kedzie Garfield Park Neighborhood Market where they hope to build a food incubator and grow a food hub business. “When I first moved into our home, Fulton Street was a drug spot,” Angela says. “Now neighbors can sit on the porch.”

In addition to building support for community gardens, Veggie Bingo also educates the public about Chicago’s community garden culture—and about gardening more generally.

“When they come to Veggie Bingo, they get to meet the people running these gardens,” says NeighborSpace’s Cline. The event has inspired some players, she continues, to begin gardening in their own backyards.


Historically a working man’s bar that catered to steel workers and local scribe Nelson Algren, the Hideout has remained a classic “third space” for both political mobilizing and feeding people, says Cline. It has also been a drop-off location for various CSAs and host of the annual “Farmer’s Talent Show.”

Such locations are needed in neighborhoods that are developing their own food cultures, says Hideout owner Katie Tuten, who also works for Catholic Charities doing research on food deserts and community health. “I am very aware of the importance of community gardens,” Tuten says, “as well as what it means to be a community and the importance of feeding the community spiritually as well.”

Half public art project, half tourist destination, a floating food forest called Swale is set to launch along the New York City waterfront in June.

Unlike the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Clifton Park Food Forest in Baltimore, and other similar efforts located in public parks or public land, Swale is built on a barge. Occupying the equivalent of one tenth of an acre, the barge will be planted with mature persimmon and paw-paw trees, gooseberries, autumn olives, chives, artichokes, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and dozens of other varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nuts that visitors are invited to harvest and eat, free of charge. Swale will dock at six ports along the Hudson River, including Governors Island, Yankee Pier, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, spending at least one month in each. Read more

Carl Schurz High School isn’t technically located in a “food desert,” but it might as well be. Nine out of 10 students attending this Chicago high school come from low-income households, where highly processed foods and fast food are the norm.

Yet, a surprising development is unfolding within these very walls. On a particularly cold February day, with snow still on the ground, many Carl Schurz students were served fresh micro-greens as part of their Chicago Public School-provided lunch. Read more

When the black cherry trees start budding in New York City, I know it’s time to get back into the garden. Like any good green thumb, I organize my seeds and start my transplants. I look back on last season’s mistakes, and map my growing space with the sophomoric optimism of an annual agriculturalist. I topdress my garden beds with compost to reinvigorate the tired soil. And this is where my story diverges from that of most vegetable growers.

For me, topdressing involves schlepping soil up several flights of stairs. Read more

Scale is of the utmost importance in the tech world. If your idea is good enough, the theory goes, it should be something just about everyone can use. You can charge each person pennies, but eventually those pennies add up to real dollars.

Kimbal Musk, brother of billionaire and business magnate Elon Musk, is applying that principle to the food world. With his sustainable, locally sourced restaurant chain, the Kitchen, and his nonprofit, the Kitchen Community, Musk is making inroads into both local food systems and food education which he hopes can easily be replicated throughout the country and creates a new generation of farmers in the process.

Read more

Two surprising things happened to Curtis Stone the year he decided to start Green City Acres, in Kelowna, British Columbia. First, he became a town celebrity and, second, he made a good living doing it.

In The Urban Farmer, Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land, Stone lays out his methodology for building a successful farm on a quarter acre of land. He strictly follows high-density, bio-intensive methods to create a compact landscape of specialty crops grown for market. Read more

In Lincoln Smith’s basement, shiny, solid Red Oak acorns dry in racks stacked up to the ceiling. A bucket of Sawtooth acorns—a failed storage attempt—sit next to his refrigerator, the contents chewed into beehive-esque patterns by weevils.

Storage is just one example of all there is to learn about acorns as a sustainable food source, Smith says.

“Some of the Eastern Native Americans would bury whole bags of acorns in the riverbank,” he says. “It’s kind of amazing that something that was buried in the riverbank for a year could be edible food.” Read more

A puppy races down the gravel driveway to greet Tyson Hicks-Garlington. The 17-year-old teen rubs its neck as he greets his mentor of several years, John Gordon, Jr. They walk past goats and chickens inside an enormous pen, and stop before lush fields, where Hicks-Garlington introduces himself for the interview with steady eye contact and a firm handshake.

Gordon lets the young man take the lead. As the founder of BoysGrow, Gordon revels in seeing young men speak for themselves. The nonprofit organization pays at-risk teenage boys as they learn about entrepreneurship through growing and selling fresh vegetables. Under the guidance of dedicated staff and volunteers, the young men who work on this 10-acre farm outside of Kansas City, Missouri produce and market their own organic food and artisan farm products like salsa and barbecue sauce. Read more