Urban Farming Embraces Chicago’s South Side

When you think about Chicago’s South Side you should think about farms.

We could keep going, but honestly, the best way to really understand the amazing work taking place right now in Chicago’s South Side by UGC is to read the interview.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with Grow Up Gardens. What inspired you to establish the Urban Growers Collective?

While farming is the foundation upon which we grow, helping people thrive is our emphasis and the motivation for our work. Since inception, Urban Growers Collective works towards building stronger, healthier communities through a variety of programming centered around Food Access, Job Training & Education, and Community Engagement.

Through our programs, we provide training and education on urban agriculture and food systems; offer skill building experiences, jobs, and economic opportunities to youth; identify and lift up community priorities and needs; and use evidence-based practices to create safe and beautiful places for communities to convene, create, heal, and transform. Our core values honor shared leadership and collective decision making; racial, economic, gender, and LGBTQ+ equity; and employee well-being. We have witnessed how these values lead to thoughtful, holistic programming and yield environments that create and nourish prosperity.

How do you determine the needs and priorities of the communities you serve and incorporate them into your programs?

Working closely with community partners, our approach is to demonstrate the development of community-based food systems and to support communities in developing systems of their own where food is grown, prepared, and distributed within the community itself. We operate 8 urban farms on 11 acres of land, predominantly located on Chicago’s South Side. These farms are production-oriented but also offer opportunities for staff-led education, training, leadership development, and food distribution. Each farm utilizes intensive growing practices and year-round production strategies to best maximize growing space.

Urban Growers Collective is familiar with the needs of the urban communities that we serve, we meet our people through grassroots outreach and frontline service. We also use an inclusive approach to through charettes and surveys to help gauge community needs. This becomes the stepping stone for our programs because being a grassroots agricultural collective requires needs-based commitment. As such, our programs are able to change with the circumstances our communities face

What impact does your work have on the communities you serve, and how do you evaluate it?

Helping people thrive is the motivation for all our work. Through our programs, we provide training and education on urban agriculture and food systems; offer skill building experiences, jobs, and economic opportunities to youth; identify and lift up community priorities and needs; and use evidence-based practices to create safe and beautiful places for communities to convene, create, heal, and transform.

We create food access pathways for the Southside and Westside of Chicago by helping folks gain access to grow in urban settings through community gardens and growers’ apprenticeships. When our community members reach out to us and share how grateful they are to have found one of our community plots, we know we’re making an impact.

Photo credit: Urban Growers Collective

How do you address issues of equity related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status in your work?

Racism affects all aspects of our society, including our food system. At the turn of the 20th century, formerly enslaved Black people and their heirs owned 15 million acres of land, primarily in the South, mostly used for farming. Now, Black people are only 1 percent of rural landowners in the U.S., and under 2 percent of farmers. Rates of food insecurity are substantially higher for BIPOC-headed households than for White-headed households.

Our aim is to provide jobs while working to mitigate food insecurity and limited access to affordable, culturally affirming, and nutritionally-dense food.

Through the symbiotic work we do, we are able to address issues of equity related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status. The nature of our cooperative allows for an ongoing exchange of skills, knowledge, and resources that are intersectional to these issues among our participants. Our work serves as a model for what’s possible when being a community-based collective.

Photo credit: Urban Growers Collective

Why is it important that your training and education programs are grounded in evidence-based practices?

Urban Growers Collective provides hands-on job training and creates economic opportunities for youth and beginner BIPOC farmers. Our approach is to build economic opportunity for BIPOC urban growers and makers; mitigate food insecurity; and increase access to high quality, affordable, culturally affirming, and nutritionally-dense food on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

From our experience, we know that training and education programs on urban agriculture and food systems are pathways for young people and adults to build a healthy lifestyle for themselves.​​ This work is important because not only are we engaging with peoples’ basic human right to eat healthy food, but we are also able to work toward an alternative future in urban agriculture. Our Theory of Changes helps guide our work and provides the metric from which we measure success.

What kind of economic opportunities do you create for BIPOC urban growers and makers?

Our Growers and Herbalism Apprenticeship program is a hands-on training program designed to lead up-and-coming BIPOC urban growers and makers to a pathway in cooperative economics. The apprenticeship includes workshops, mentoring, and repeated practice to build basic hands-on skills and understand the fast pace needed to meet commercial demands. UGC works with participants to create a pathway for future procurement and larger-scale commercial distribution. It also provides scaffolded opportunities for participants to refine core values; build business aptitude; and work toward financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable farming operations. 

How do you engage and provide skill-building opportunities and jobs to young people as part of your programs?

The Youth Corps program aims to serve as both a job training experience and to encourage leadership development. It’s our goal that teens graduate with a comprehensive understanding of sustainable food system development and the ability to connect and communicate how the skills they’ve gained at the farm translate to any career path they may follow.

What are the main challenges you face in mitigating food insecurity, and how do you overcome them?

It’s not a matter of “if” community members want access to fresh fruits and vegetables, it is a matter of purchasing power. Once we began giving out free $10 coupons with Covid Relief Emergency Funds, the number of folks being served on the Fresh Moves Mobile Market skyrocketed from 5,000 customers annually to over 36,000 in 2022.

Another challenge is there is a slight learning curve in preparing and cooking nutritional food that isn’t processed. We overcome this through education, cooking workshops, and recipes attached to crops like okra and heirloom squash, for example.

Photo credit: Urban Growers Collective

How do you ensure that the food you offer is both culturally appropriate and nutritionally dense?

UGC’s farm sites are crucial community spaces for so many reasons, and we are excited to be able to grow the impact of our farm programming as we move into 5 years since UGC’s founding. Our farm sites allow our team to grow delicious and nutritionally dense foods so that we can increase access to healthy foods for our communities, improving food insecurity and health, and advancing food justice for all.

At UGC, we love compost. When making our own, we only use food and garden waste—not manure. This prevents pathogens like e-coli and listeria. In addition to organic materials from our farms, we source brewery mesh from Marz Brewing to use in our compost. Our mushroom compost is sourced from a farm outside of the city. We are very particular about who we buy from. Through controlling our soil, we can assure that the food we grow in nutritionally dense.

We ensure that the food is culturally appropriate through representation in our agricultural methods. We are grounded in Black and Indigenous traditions in agriculture, and this understanding guides our food-growing practices.

What role can technology play in improving access to healthy food in urban areas?

Technology helps with logistics, tracing, and tracking data on the farm and serves our day-to-day needs within our cooperative work. There are several programs in the City of Chicago that give low-income residents access to technology like phones, tablets and discounts on internet.

man posing by street art
Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

One of the most exciting developments on the horizon is the Green Era Campus. What is the vision for this location?

Green Era’s mission is to create more sustainable communities by supporting local food production through better management of biodegradable waste and access to soil.

We’re transforming a 9-acre vacant brownfield on the South Side of Chicago into a renewable energy facility and green oasis for economic empowerment, clean energy, fresh produce, and vibrant communities.

The vision for our Green Era Campus is to have a place that helps folks grow healthy food and healthy soil. It is exciting to know that this project will be able to create green jobs that support Black and Brown communities, which in itself addresses many issues all at once. Chicago is in the midst of a hunger crisis, with more than half a million Cook County residents experiencing food insecurity. Auburn Gresham has one of the highest food insecurity rates in all of Chicago.

Green Era will provide the compost created by the digester at low cost to farmers throughout Chicago, and use it on the project’s seven-acre urban farm, which is expected to grow 26,000+ pounds of produce. The farm will provide ongoing benefits to neighboring residents by producing farm-fresh and culturally-responsive food year-round. The Green Era Campus farm is expected to grow:

  • 10,000 bunches of collards
  • 3,500 pints of strawberries
  • 4,000 tomatoes
    • 70+ varieties of medicinal and culinary herbs      

Green Era Stats/Facts

  • 55M POUNDS: Chicago’s total monthly food waste that Green Era Campus will begin to divert
  • 300 NEW JOBS created for the community, including construction jobs and permanent positions
  • 42,500 TONS Carbon dioxide offset by Green Era technology each year
  • 125+ varieties of fresh produce and medicinal herbs grown and distributed per year
  • 20,000+ square feet of community outdoor space
  • According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the largest solid waste stream reaching landfills in the United States, with Chicago alone producing 55 million pounds of food waste per month. Green Era has developed an anaerobic digester that will recycle organic waste — inedible food waste — to produce renewable natural gas (RNG) and nutrient-rich compost.

Tell us about Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion is a safe and proven technology widely used to manage organic waste and to produce energy. Using natural, biological processes, anaerobic digestion breaks down organic matter without oxygen, resulting in two bi-products: biogas and nutrient-rich compost.

The biogas can be converted into clean, high-quality Renewable Natural Gas (RNG). This provides communities and businesses with a green and local supply of gas to meet growing energy needs—all without building new pipelines.

Using food waste sourced from mission-aligned partnerships (including Urban Growers Collective) with local municipal agencies, local restaurants, food companies and manufacturers, and residents, we can begin to divert some of this food waste away from the landfills and give it a second life.

The large volumes of organic, nutrient-rich compost produced by Green Era’s process will be provided at low-cost to farmers throughout the city and used on our seven-acre urban farm, which is expected to grow 26,000+ pounds of food annually.

How can public-private partnerships be utilized to increase access to healthy and affordable food in urban areas?

Green Era provides businesses, organizations and communities an easy and cost-effective alternative to landfilling your organic waste, while also helping to meet zero-waste, recycling goals and creating a thriving green community.

The project is part of the Auburn Gresham – Quality of Life plan that was completed in 2017 and is based on 20 years of trailblazing work to solve the issue of healthy soil to grow food and remediate the toxins prevalent in Black and

Brown, and low-income communities. UGC and Green Era held over two dozen meetings and visioning sessions with residents of the 21st ward and with our partner Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, another 501c3 who has opened a full-service Health Hub. Additionally, Urban Growers Collective worked with students from Simeon Career Academy and our Youth Corps – After School Programs to design the community education, retail food and agriculture production facets of the campus (7 acres). We partnered with Taylor Staten, Principal of TNStudio to lead the design process. We also worked with Rudd Communications to share the outcomes and process with the community at large.

This project has been worked on for 13 years with our teams and collaborators, consultants and advisors. We have a dynamic and diverse group of engaged community-based owners. UGC would not have a project without community involvement and support.

What are your long-term goals and plans for growth, and how do you envision the future for UGC?

We prioritize people, and we plan to expand our reach within the communities we serve. We are working to build a place where our communities are increasingly able to engage with the distribution of compost and develop the skills it takes to grow food in the urban environment. Our long-term goals are to increase food access by enabling participants, once trained and educated, to continue making compost and growing food themselves outside of our program as we continue to bring more new people into the program.

We are incredibly grateful to the Urban Growers Collective team for taking the time to speak with us. Their commitment to creating a future where communities have access to fresh, healthy food and the knowledge and tools to grow it themselves is unmatched. And their efforts towards building a more sustainable and equitable food system have truly made a difference in the lives of countless individuals.

One response to “Urban Farming Embraces Chicago’s South Side”

  1. This is the most ground-breaking and innovative development I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.

    Kudos to UGC and continued growth and blessings!

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