Plans for a healthy food system take root in Englewood

Wood Street Urban Farm / Photo courtesy of Growing Home

Just hours away from vast swaths of agriculturally productive soil in southern Illinois, finding a fresh tomato in Chicago's South Side neighborhood of Englewood can be a challenge.

That is one reason for anticipation over the opening of the Englewood Farmer's Market next summer.

The market will be one outpost of a "community food system" envisioned by a diverse network of groups aiming to create the neighborhood's first urban agricultural district.

Planners hope to bring access to healthy food, sustainable agriculture and small business development together in a scheme that also includes urban gardens, produce carts, kiosks and community kitchens.

"There was a dire need for this program," says Alderman Toni Foulkes (D-15), who is involved in the planning efforts.

Foulkes, a 36-year resident of Englewood and former grocery worker at Jewel Foods, recalls a time decades ago when there was an A & P, a Hi-Lo Grocery and a Jewel, all within an eight-block walk from her home.

Today, she says, "it is a complete food desert in that area. If you wanted to get a fresh tomato ...  if you live at 59th and Ashland, you would have to travel to Archer Avenue. If you were to go east, you would probably have to go all the way to the lake."

Researchers coined the term "food desert" in the mid-1990s to describe areas where residents lack access to healthy food due to economic, geographic or other barriers.

It's an apt term for the Englewood community area, which is served by just two major full-service chains, Aldi's and Food 4 Less, both discount stores.

Daniel Block, an associate professor of geography at Chicago State University, has studied the geographic distribution of grocery stores in the Chicago metropolitan area.

While discount grocery retailers are expanding everywhere except in the wealthiest neighborhoods, full-service, non-discount grocery chains like Jewel, are closing stores and consolidating, he says. They're concentrating new construction in the suburbs and on the Northwest Side.

"They're being squeezed by both the discounts and the super centers on one end, and the independent, specialty stores on the other," says Block.

The large grocery chains find cheaper land and more space in the suburbs. In addition, grocery stores have thin margins of profit, so they don't want to take chances in areas where they would have to stock and market stores differently.

"They'd rather choose places where they don't have to deal with city overhead or make a condensed version of their stores," says Block. "They have to have a really sure market."

Block's research found that, when they have the option,  people shop at multiple stores. They may go to a small independent store for produce, a Sam's store for monthly bulk purchases, a specialty store for high-end items and a full-service grocery store for everything else.

"That's really hard if you're in an area that doesn't have these choices," says Block.

And while independent Asian and Eastern European stores flourish in the northwest suburbs, and produce stores like Cermak Produce and Tony's thrive in Hispanic neighborhoods, African American communities are left out,  says Block.

Foulkes and other Englewood residents detailed their efforts to bring a green district  to Englewood at a March 18 panel organized as part of the third annual Chicago Food Policy Summit.

Orrin Williams and other panel members at Chicago Food Policy Summit / Photo by Dennis Fiser

Participants agreed that building a community food system would require coordination by a range of entities including government, philanthropic foundations, schools, churches and community organizations.

Plans will center around the efforts of Growing Home Inc., a 6-year-old non-profit organization that uses vegetable growing to create job opportunities for people with histories of incarceration, drug abuse and homelessness.

The Chicago-based group sells their produce to high-end restaurants and the City Green Market, producing graduates with skills in landscaping, food preparation and processing and farming in the process.

In 2007, Growing Home moved into Englewood with the opening of the one-acre Wood Street Urban Farm, at 58th and Wood Street. In addition to growing kale, collard greens, lettuce and spinach, they're in the process of constructing an agricultural complex that will include a greenhouse, a barn, offices and a food processing area.

Last year, they joined with Teamwork Englewood, the organizing arm of the Local Initiative Support Corporation's New Communities Program, an on-going effort to rejuvenate 16 Chicago neighborhoods.  When NCP, with input from 650 residents, began drawing up a "Quality of Life Plan" for the area in 2003, access to healthy food emerged as a major goal.

Teamwork Englewood executive director Rev. Rodney Walker, says the organization is working to organize resident block clubs, the city's public health department, the Consortium to Lower Childhood Obesity and Chicago State University, among others, to devise strategies to increase food choices.

"There's a lot of give and take among all of the entities," says Walker, who says developing strategies broad enough for a large number of groups to coalesce around will be key to the success of the effort.

The Englewood Farmers' Market, scheduled to open in June at 65th Street and Ashland Avenue, is a project of students at the Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School on South Wolcott in West Englewood.

Led by Principal Alan Mather and Chinese teacher Jingwoan Chang, students are participating in an academic seminar centered on the planning and marketing of the venture.

Ariel Jones, 16, a student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, says she's been surprised at how much enthusiasm the project has generated.

Lindblom Math and Science Academy student Ariel Jones / Photo by Dennis Fiser

"It's very hard to get teenagers to do work, let alone a farmers' market," Jones says. But, she says, "my peers really like it. I know they do, because they do it so well."

Ariel doesn't live in Englewood, but has family there, including a cousin with diabetes whose health depends upon good food choices.

The students surveyed the community and began developing a website for marketing. They planned a budget and  a location strategy. They met with Foulkes, who stressed the importance of locating near public transportation.

A 10-acre farm that Growing Home operates in LaSalle County will provide one source of produce for the market.

Orrin Williams, executive director of the Center for Urban Transformation, is also negotiating with a group of African-American farmers in Kankakee County. He also hopes to include Growing Power, a nonprofit that promotes urban farming in Milwaukee and Chicago.

Plans call for LISC to provide $35,000. Teamwork Englewood and Growing Home will contribute $15,000. Meanwhile, students and community groups are beginning to brainstorm about ways to make the project financially sustainable.

They're looking at programs like "Food for the Hood," a company launched in the early 1990s by students at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles who turned a garden project into a successful salad dressing brand.

The company provides scholarships for the student-managers who plant, harvest, prepare and market the product, as well as jobs for the community.

The vision of Englewood as a green business district proves that the principles of environmentalism and sustainability can go hand-in-hand with economic development, says Martha Boyd, program director at the Angelic Organics Learning Center Urban Initiative in Chicago.

"This is an endeavor where an emphasis on healthy food choices, local business and support for black-owned businesses, are all woven into a larger sense of economic health," Boyd says.

The "kiosk project" is the work of Boyd and Williams, who in addition to directing the Center for Urban Transformation, also serves as employment training coordinator for Growing Home.

The duo is designing a new infrastructure that could make fresh produce practical and profitable for the small corner stores that dot the urban landscape. These stores often serve as first and last-stop food shopping for residents with limited access to transportation.

"We need to make it so they're a repository for fruits and vegetables," says Williams.

Boyd cites the tiny profit margin of small food retailers who are "just trying to hold on" as evidence that the often unhealthy range of food choices available at these stores isn't "just about people being bad decision makers."

Instead of making store owners figure out how to make produce sales profitable, she and Williams would like to see a small business design, install and replenish produce kiosks in neighborhood stores.

"Just like there may be one person who specializes in setting up chip kiosks, we'd do the same thing with produce," says Boyd. "That's just one model of how you can flip the problem on its head and try to come up with a different solution."

Other projects are sprouting from these seeds. Growing Home is planning an organic garden at the Bontemps Elementary School in West Englewood.

Growing Home executive director Harry Rhodes says it will draw on the "edible schoolyard" concept pioneered in Berkeley, which integrates the gardening process with the curriculum and the lunch program. Rhodes says it's a way to bring in children and their parents at the same time.

Also in the works is a "food venture center," which could function as both a community kitchen, a resource center for gardeners and cooks, and a food processing site.

The object is to expand access to an Englewood food chain. "It really becomes seamless at a point," says Williams.

Government involvement is crucial to building such a network, participants say.

Growing Home, Teamwork Englewood and the alderman worked closely with the city council and planning and development officials to secure land for the Wood Street farm. Ultimately the City agreed to transfer the land to Growing Home for $1.

Communicating the value of these kinds of projects to aldermen is also a challenge, says Foulkes.

"The aldermen are very busy," says Foulkes. "So, you've got to demand their time and demand a meeting. Don't just talk to them on the phone. Sit down with them and make them understand. Make them listen."

Foulkes, who secured the land for the Wood Street farm after approaching a local pastor, also advocates taking advantage of all that neighborhood churches have to offer.

"There's a lot of churches that close up on Sunday and they don't do anything until they open up again on the next Sunday," says Foulkes. "Make them accountable to the community if they're there."

To some, it's proof that environmentalism, once seen as the purview of the privileged, can provide a viable route to community development and self-sufficiency in economically distressed urban areas.

"It may seem very small when you just look at it as a farm," says Foulkes, "but it's doing wonderful things for the students, for the ex-offender population in our ward, for the community."