There’s a shocking statistic in the city of Chicago: over 600,000 of our 2.8-plus million residents live in so-called “food deserts.” Local food policy consultant Mari Gallagher’s groundbreaking reports on food deserts have helped put our city on the map as a national focal point for food disparities. According to Gallagher, food deserts are neighborhoods where residents lack access to fresh, healthy produce. In Chicago, the majority of food desert residents are African-American women and children.
In an effort to provide equal access to fresh food in their communities, several grass-roots organizations are growing solutions in areas needing it most. One of the oldest is Chicago Growing Home (Growinghomeinc.org
), founded in 1992 by Les Brown, then the Director of Policy for Chicago’s Coalition for the Homeless. With organic farms in Chicago and Marseilles, a CSA program and farmer’s markets across the city, Growing Home teaches at-risk and formerly incarcerated individuals how to grow food as a transition step towards re-entering the workforce and society.
The other is Chicago Growing Power (GrowingPower.org
), founded in 1993 by Mac-Arthur Genius Will Allen. One of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Allen believes it’s “impossible to have healthy communities without a healthy food system.” Through organic farms in Wisconsin and Chicago, Rainbow Farmers Cooperative CSA program and regional food security training across the country, Allen is working to ensure “everyone has the right to fresh, nutritious, affordable food—regardless of economic circumstances.”
Smaller organizations led by every day citizens are also playing a crucial role. LaDonna Redmond was living in a food desert on the West side ten years ago when she discovered her son had severe food allergies. As she explored foods she could and couldn’t feed him, she struggled to find fresh, healthy produce in her predominantly Black neighborhood. Determined to provide her family and community with “s.o.u.l.” food—sustainable, organic, urban, local—she began converting vacant lots into urban farm sites. Today, she’s the CEO of the Institute for Community Resource Development and a Kellogg and MacArthur fellow. Last year, she launched Graffiti & Grub (Graffitiandgrub.com
), a restaurant, grocery store and community center in East Englewood that feeds and educates local residents on healthy living.
An hour and a half from downtown, Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter and her husband Fred Carter have spent years working “off the grid” for food justice. They live in a yurt in Pembroke Township, Ill., a predominantly African-American farm community spanning 56-square miles founded in the late 1800s as a safe haven for escaped or newly freed slaves and Native Americans. Dr. Jifunza, a board-certified holistic doctor with a masters in public health, and Fred, the only African-American certified permaculture instructor in North America, believe that worse than food deserts, “there will soon be a major collapse in the global food system.”
With the goal of redistributing wealth in their community through food, Fred & Dr. Jifunza launched the Black Oaks Center (BlackOaksCenter.org) for Sustainable Renewable Living, a non-profit organic farm and training center run on renewable energy. Through their Healthy Food Hub, they offer a year-round CSA program sourced from Pembroke’s Black farm collective. They host bi-weekly farmer’s markets on the South Side, including one operated by students from Betty Shabbazz International, a K-12 high school and eco-campus at 78th and Ellis.
Community gardener Gregory Bratton is teaching his neighbors to grow their own food the old fashioned way. A celebrated master gardener, Bratton was instrumental in building several of Chicago’s infamous rooftop gardens, and grows food year-round in heated hoop houses. With the support of Chicago’s Department of Environment and Healthy Southeast Chicago, he acquires abandoned city lots and transforms them into green treasures like the Bush Community Garden of Hope and the Buffalo Senior Inspirational Community Garden.
One of the youngest rising stars in the movement is Seneca Price-Kern, who “sees no reason why every home in Chicago can’t grow their own food, if given a hand,” and is empowering homeowners and apartment dwellers alike to become DIY master gardeners. Through his company, We Farm America (WeFarmAmerica.com
)—which offers garden planning, implementation and harvesting—Price-Kern’s objective is to convert all city lawns and vacant lots into high-yielding gardens. On an average day, you might catch him planting a 25-bed community garden on the South Side with repurposed wood from Rebuilding Exchange. Price-Kern also hosts bi-monthly garden parties in Rogers Park with nutrition consultancy Appetite For Balance.
With passionate activists like these and others planting fertile seeds of change in their communities, there’s hope that one day, all residents of the Emerald City will have access to fresh, healthy food—no matter their race, class or zip code.
- As first published in Mindful Metropolis