Creating local food options in an urban setting
How one woman channeled her discovery about the perils of an industrial food system into creating local options for healthy, sustainably produced food in her own Chicago neighborhood.

By LaDonna Redmond

November 9, 2004: The word “agriculture” evokes certain pictures that vary with the individual. A short drive outside of Chicago, fields and fields of corn or soybeans evoke one image. Barns and cows conjure up another. In more progressive circles, agriculture may mean food and small family farmers living close to the land.

Kabiyisi Urban Farms

Chicago, Illinois
Operation: A variety of vegetables – heirloom tomatoes, greens, collards, mustards, turnips, spinach, onions, herbs.
Marketing: Sales to local restaurants and farmers markets. Employees: The farm is staffed by a team of five people. They work seasonally from April until about October.
Affiliations: The Urban Farms are a project under a nonprofit called The Institute for Community Resource Development.

Urban agriculture topples the myth that food production has to occur in wide-open spaces on large tracts of land. In fact, urban agriculture flies in the face of what usually has been done (and shown to be possible) in urban communities. Urban agriculture is part of a growing trend toward locally produced food, knowing where food comes from and who grew it.

Urban agriculture has been around for centuries. In 16th century Peru, a self-reliant urban agricultural system thrived in the Andes mountain city Machu Picchu. In 19th century France, biointensive agriculture fed local communities in urban centers.

Urban agriculture is about feeding people; it embraces the rights of farmers to produce food and the right of community to choose what they want to eat. Urban agriculture also embraces the concept of food sovereignty, a concept developed by Vía Campesina and introduced at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996.

At a follow-up summit five years later, a group of NGOs described food sovereignty as “the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labor, fishing, food, and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances....”

Food sovereignty introduces a complete integration of social justice ideals that do not begin and end with food production but take into account every aspect of the system. It favors local food for local communities over food produced for import or export.

Bring it on home

My involvement in urban agriculture began with a simple wish to feed my son a healthy diet. After learning of his severe food allergies, I started to research the potential connection to food. I wanted to better understand what the proper diet for a 2 year old who was allergic to peanuts, shellfish, eggs, cheese and milk would look like! My research led me to the conclusion that the best diet for my son, and my whole family, would be a whole-foods diet with as little processed, packaged food included as possible.

Not realizing that I was asking a big question, I stumbled across some articles that mentioned genetically modified (GMO) food. However, when I examined food labels, no mention of GMOs could be found. How could this happen, and why was I not made aware of this? As I read further, I found out about industrial agriculture and all of its hazards. I was not prepared for the revelation that I knew very little about where my food came from or who grew it. Prior to this incident with my son, I would not have even considered the fact healthy and nutritious food has a lot to do with how that food was produced.

Closing in on a solution proved more difficult. Wallowing in the “industrial agriculture in the country needs to change” mentality did not get the food on the table in my Westside Chicago neighborhood. I needed to gain access to food unpolluted by genetic engineering and free from pesticides. I needed organic food. Organic was not a new word to me; I had been exposed to the concept at the Midwestern college I attended. There were a few organic vegetable items in the local store—I remember the grey tinge on some carrots. They were not very appealing and hardly local.

My search for organic food in Chicago took me to grocery stores all over the city. On one of my long shopping excursions, I was disheartened to discover that I could not grocery shop in my own neighborhood. There was only one grocery store, and it did not carry organic food. On a visit to the produce section, I was shocked to find Boston lettuce at $3 a pound and heirloom tomatoes at $4.99 per pound. I quickly realized that we could scarcely afford organic food. I also wondered just how much effort it would it take to grow some lettuce and a couple of tomatoes (little did I know the ultimate ramifications of that simple question).

"Not realizing that I was asking a big question, I stumbled across some articles that mentioned genetically modified (GMO) food. However, when I examined food labels, no mention of GMO’s could be found. How could this happen, and why was I not made aware of this?"
After some more research, my husband and I decided to convert our backyard into what we called a “micro-farm.” My in-laws, who grew up on farms in rural areas, offered technical assistance. We grew lettuce, tomatoes, peas, squash, greens, cabbage, onions and a few herbs.

Then I decided to plant some corn. My father-in-law, Mr. Willie, looked amazed and proclaimed with authority, “That’s not going to grow.” I asked him why, and he responded matter-of-factly, “Corn won’t grow here in Chicago.”

Illinois is the leading state in soybean production and the second leading state in corn. One out of every four jobs in Illinois is agriculturally related. This is the Corn Belt. Surely, I thought, I can grow corn in Chicago. In defiance, I planted my kernels. I learned a lot about corn and planted two varieties, one hybrid and the other a native. The hybrid took; the native variety did not. I learned a new word: tassel. The tassel on the corn had to pollinate the silk, otherwise no corn will grow. Imagine that! I had no idea! One of my fellow gardeners told me to go out and gently shake my corn plants. Wacky as it sounded, I went out and shook all 20 of my corn stalks. By late August, Mr. Willie was the first to tell me that my corn was ready to pick. My husband, Tracey, had become a willing and even enthusiastic participant in this urban garden experiment. One day out of the blue, Tracey declared that he wanted to farm. Reluctant to give up all I knew about urban life, I looked around and saw that we could farm right where we were.

Sharing the wealth

Chicago is home to an estimated 70,000 vacant parcels of land. Mayor Richard M. Daley harbors a dream of creating the greenest city in the U.S. Well on his way to being the green mayor, Daley has developed a number of innovative environmental projects, including a roof-top garden on City Hall (where, of course, it’s always good to have a friend).

Urban farming and rural farming share some similarities. One, of course, is the goal to grow a product for consumption. The fundamental difference between urban agriculture and rural farming is land, specifically, the way in which that is acquired. Urban options include partnership with a municipal agency to gain access or outright purchase. The latter can prove to be very expensive, as land values in urban centers such Chicago are relatively costly. The lots that we acquire through our nonprofit, the Institute for Community Resource Development, we held in a trust by an organization called Neighborspace. Neighborspace holds the title to lots, and we have a management agreement for site usage.

As we developed the process to convert vacant lots to urban farm sites, supporting the local economy was a central theme. To achieve that end, we decided to at least try to use the time and talent of local community members as we developed the project. One of the ways the farm has consistently contributed to the local economy has been through hiring folks in our community to work on the farm sites. This work has included anything from short-term contracting, such as renting a Bobcat and hiring a driver to move compost, to hiring someone to plant and harvest vegetables for market.

As hard as we try, sometimes it isn’t possible to get everything from the community. In those cases, we have been able to identify other community based organizations to help us achieve our local economy goals. The inputs that make our vacant lots suitable to growing healthy produce are similar to those used to turn around abused farmland; they are simply applied in different quantities. To begin, we purchase good-quality compost by the truckload from a local urban farmer, Ken Dunn, director of the Resource Center. The Resource Center collects vegetable waste from local restaurants and turns it into compost. In the Chicago area, Dunn is known as the father of urban agriculture.

Before we could use the compost for the farm sites, we had to break up the heavily compacted soil. This could not be accomplished with a tiller; we used a backhoe to get the job done. The owner of the backhoe is a community member who owns a construction company.

University resources came in handy when figuring how to lay out the beds on the lots. An Extension agent from the University of Illinois helped us identify suitable plant varieties and with spacing. Because our project is done organically, we turned to local organic market producers to help with pest management and production. David Cleverton of Kinnikinnick Farms helped a lot by donating a couple of hundred tomato seedlings and then coming out to the urban farm sites to help us plant them.

We now have six lots and a refrigerated truck, and my husband Tracey is well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming a full-time farmer.

As we began working with urban agriculture, we realized that while the organic issue was important to us; locally grown, accessible food was even more so. Learning that our community was somewhat of a “food desert” was a real eye opener. There was very limited access to quality produce such as organic. That our community did not desire this type of food was one of the many myths we shattered along our journey; that our neighbors were largely uneducated was another. Supporting the local Austin Farmers' Market has been another way to build up the local economy.

The urban farm has inspired us to provide healthy, local, and sustainable food choices not only for our family but for our entire neighborhood. The food that we grow on the urban farm sites is sold at local farmers' markets and, seasonally of course, at the neighborhood corner grocery store.

As we attempt to connect the food production of urban and rural communities, we see an opportunity to not choose urban over rural but to create a connection that highlights the value of both environments.

“Creating a systems approach related to urban agriculture is important,” says Orrin Williams, founder and president of the Center for Urban Transformation. (Williams is an environmental justice activist who has worked to close down toxic polluters on the West Side of Chicago.) “Urban agriculture cannot exist in a vacuum,” he says.

“This project goes beyond mere gardening because the intent is to look at the comprehensive approach to the issue of developing local economies—hiring locally, selling locally. Using a food-system paradigm, we can see clearly how urban agriculture can improve access to high-quality food in communities like Austin.”

LaDonna Redmond is president of the Institute for Community Resource Development, a member of the Illinois Governor’s Advisory Council on Agriculture and Family Farms, and a 2003 Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Fellow.