The Organic Urban Farm Growing Healthy Food for One of Chicago’s Most Underserved Neighborhoods | Civil Eats

The Organic Urban Farm Growing Healthy Food for One of Chicago’s Most Underserved Neighborhoods

For two decades, the 1.5-acre Growing Home farm grew fresh produce for restaurants and surrounding communities. Now it’s focused on feeding its neighbors with support from across the city. 

Harvesting Tomatoes at Growing Home. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

Photo courtesy of Growing Home

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For many seasons, most of the kale, chard, tomatoes, beets, napa cabbage, carrots, and collard greens harvested by Growing Home, a 1.5-acre organic urban farm in the impoverished Englewood community on Chicago’s South Side, was destined for marketplaces within the city’s more affluent communities.

But when Janelle St. John accepted a development role at the farm four years ago, her insight, combined with the need to respond to food insecurity during the pandemic, led to a dramatic shift in the distribution of the farm’s harvest.

Today, as much as three-quarters of Growing Home’s 150 varieties of vegetables and herbs is delivered to its neighbors. Despite the new distribution strategy, St. John, now the farm’s executive director, says Growing Home has increased its revenue and is eager to pursue development designed to deepen its engagement with the community and the city.

Janelle St. John stands at the entrance to a Growing Home hoop house. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

Janelle St. John stands at the entrance to a Growing Home hoop house. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

In the midst of a $19 million fundraising campaign, Growing Home is seeking to raise capital to build on an empty lot across the street from its seven hoop houses. To support both the farm’s bottom line and its mission, the project includes building a bigger space for preparing its harvest for distribution and delivery.

“Being the only USDA-certified organic farm [in the city], we are in a unique space where we can provide our community access to goods that they otherwise would have been priced out of,” St. John said.

But that’s not all: St. John wants more space for Growing Home’s workforce development and computer training programs, which currently are housed in two trailers. She also envisions a farm store, café, and kitchen to provide more learning opportunities for trainees, as well as space to host activities to engage the community. “That’s the future of Growing Home,” she says.

The Deep Roots of Growing Home

Growing Home took root in 2002 as the brainchild of William “Les” Brown, founder of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Located on 10 acres of land 84 miles southwest of Chicago, it offered a workforce development program for people experiencing housing instability.

After conversations with city officials, Growing Home’s farming and training operations moved in 2006 to Englewood, a residential community on the city’s South side. Raised concrete beds laid with 2 feet of compost successfully transformed the vacant lot into farmland.

Four times a year, about 20 trainees learn the tools and techniques of production-scale urban farming. They also gain job readiness skills and get opportunities to earn professional certifications that have led to careers in the city’s food production and hospitality industries.

LaQuandra Fair is one of Growing Home’s success stories. After six years in the Marine Corps and a few jobs in retail and hospitality, Fair still was searching for the right opportunity when her daughter brought home from school a flyer advertising an event at Growing Home. It reminded Fair of her family’s history of gardening. “My grandmother always grew her own greens in her backyard,” Fair recalls.

That visit led to Fair participating in Growing Home’s workforce development program in 2016 and later joining the Growing Home team as community engagement coordinator. Using the experience she gained transforming radishes, kale, and eggplant into healthful meals that can be recreated at home by Growing Home shoppers, Fair launched LaFairs Fresh Bites, a farm-to-table catering business, this summer.

“It’s very fulfilling to share my love for cooking and recipes with the community,” Fair says. “I use vegetables that I grew up eating and cooking, but now I have several healthier ways to prepare them.”

Making Fresh Food Work for All People

But beyond helping people get on a path to economic stability, St. John says that there was a narrow perception of how to incorporate the farm’s harvest into the community. Advocates have long expressed discontent over the lack of stores that sell fresh, affordable produce in the community. With a median annual income of just under $25,000, Englewood is home to some of the city’s most impoverished residents.

“It was perceived as, ‘Oh, [fresh produce is] for those foodie people, or those earthy people, or those vegan people,’ and not as a necessity for communities, or a source of revenue for communities, or an option for grocery shopping,” St. John says.

Growing Home workers harvest crops in a hoop house. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

Growing Home workers harvest crops in a hoop house. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

Upon the resignation of Growing Home’s founding executive director in 2019, the board selected as replacement Danielle K. Perry, a special advisor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Civil Rights under the Obama administration, who had led a community and school garden initiative in food-insecure communities around the country, including Englewood.

Two months later, Growing Home brought in St. John as chief fund development and communications officer. For these new leaders, stability and sustainability started with developing a food access plan that included serving the community.

“In 2019, 80 percent of our food was leaving Englewood, and Danielle was like, ‘How is that possible?’” St. John said. “So we made a strategic decision together that we were going to commit to no less than 50 percent of the food we grow [remaining] in Englewood. When COVID happened, we were able to distribute almost 100 percent of it in Englewood.”

Through a CSA program launched during COVID lockdowns, the farm now delivers produce boxes to more than 200 families in the community.

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Janice Gintzler, a retired teacher and community activist who had been coming to Growing Home for years, became one of the recipients of the farm’s local distribution strategy.

“During the pandemic, they came to my house and delivered what I asked for,” Gintzler recalls.

Under its new strategy, Growing Home still distributes some produce to markets in other communities, but the farm now has a partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to provide produce for its food banks. It also serves several food pantries in Englewood. Additionally, the farm has partnered with medical researchers at the University of Illinois and a private health insurer to test an initiative that prescribes vegetables for patients as part of their treatment plans.

The farm has also created a learning garden to teach residents the science of gardening. And at its own onsite farmers’ market on Thursdays, residents can shop for produce, get recipe cards, and sample dishes created and prepared by Fair, who is also Growing Home’s resident chef.

Even as the most popular items include collard greens and traditional varieties of cabbage, the weekly food demonstrations encourage its shoppers to experiment. “Showing people how to take the food that is growing here and make it work for them and have a healthier option to eat [is part of our mission],” says T’Nerra Butler, Growing Home’s marketing and events coordinator.

During the pandemic, St. John also expanded the number of trainees from 50 to 80 production assistants each year by adding a fourth cohort just before the official planting season.

“The [production assistants in the February cohort] get a season ready with seedlings and planning what goes in the ground,” she says. “They are a unique group that gets to see another side of the business.”

The 12-week workforce development program came just in time for Andre Morgan, a production assistant during the farm’s February 2023 class.

“I literally lost my job three days prior to coming here and my girlfriend said, ‘Hey, you should check it out. It’s kind of like landscaping,’” Morgan recalls. “It’s pretty nice. . . . It kind of branches off from what I’m used to doing. I didn’t have the science, but I had the skills and the labor. They taught me a bunch of things that I didn’t know. Now when I put things in the ground, they don’t die.”

A fence outside Growing Home's building that reads

Photo courtesy of Growing Home

Three months after graduating, Morgan can be seen navigating a half-dozen storage coolers while engaging in lively conversations with shoppers as he manages Growing Home sales a few times a week at community farmers’ markets.

Engaging the Community—and Policymakers—with Urban Agriculture

On a recent Thursday, Nikki Bunkley, who lives a few blocks away, became one of those neighbors when she made her first visit to Growing Home.

“I’m a vegetable eater, but I don’t look like it,” Bunkley joked as she navigated her selections of green and cherry tomatoes, chard, kale, collard greens, and yellow squash. Bunkley says that she knew about the farm for about a year, but it was a postcard she received in the mail that finally brought her to the market.

It’s this type of engagement that will help Growing Home develop its connection to the community and its sustainability, says Illinois State Representative Sonya Harper. After working for a dozen years in broadcast journalism, Harper returned to Chicago and her home neighborhood in search of a new beginning.

She took on a series of roles at the intersection of community activism and politics, including serving as Growing Home’s marketing and outreach director. It was that role that gave Harper insights about engaging Englewood residents, which today drive her work in the Illinois legislature.

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“When brand-new things come to the community, we’re used to them not being for us,” Harper recalls. She leveraged her communications skills to create a series of campaigns and community events to bring more neighbors to the farm and gain visibility with city leaders.

Growing Home's Honoré Street South Farm. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

Growing Home’s Honoré Street South Farm. (Photo courtesy of Growing Home)

“When I came, I turned it up,” Harper recalls. “I don’t think they [had] ever put out a press release for any of their events.”

When residents elected Harper in 2015 to represent the community in the state legislature, Growing Home gained an advocate with the ability to sell the concept of urban agriculture to lawmakers accustomed only to representing the interests of large farming communities in southern Illinois.

“When I first got to the General Assembly, folks didn’t know what a food desert was,” Harper says. “They literally laughed at me. The concept of urban agriculture was such a joke to some people—especially the downstate legislators. They would say, ‘You mean backyard gardening?’”

Instead of laughing, Harper’s colleagues are now listening. In 2023, Harper was appointed chairperson of the Illinois House of Representatives’ Agriculture and Conservation Committee. In addition to the passage of several bills that have improved the landscape for local food production, Harper brought minority farmers to the Illinois capital in April for the state’s first Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day.

St. John says that the farm needs more advocates like Harper in the legislature to achieve sustainability.

“Urban farming isn’t supported by the government. If we lose crops, there’s not a program that reimburses us to make sure that our farmers continue to get paid,” St. John says. “We are highly supported by our funders, foundations, and people who support our workforce development program.”

But the farm’s response to the immediate needs of the pandemic seems to have solidified its place in the city and in the future of agriculture in Chicago.

“COVID taught all of us that any community can become food insecure when your food has to travel [long distances],” St. John says, “I think that the city and the state, who have reached out to us many times, are in conversation about putting urban ag on the agenda seriously. Not as a, ‘Oh, let’s just do something for these people,’ I think they see the necessity of it.”

Cassie M. Chew is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter, video producer, and digital journalist. Read more >

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