Growing Power

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

Growing Power’s “deliberately comprehensive” approach to urban agriculture embeds sustainable farming practices within first-rate training programs, and a national, family farmed food distribution network. Renowned in Milwaukee for its farming initiatives and a training facility nested within an urban farm that houses ducks, fish and many a happy worm, this national non-profit began to tackle Chicagoland’s food challenges in 2002. Since then, it has collaborated with local churches, residents and neighborhood groups to bring high-quality, sustainable food systems to Chicago’s lower income communities of color. With winter greens growing in greenhouses at Garfield Park Conservatory, a market basket program for seniors, and a thriving garden at Cabrini-Green, Growing Power’s collaborations have increased access to healthy and affordable food. Despite its community focus, Growing Power has attracted attention beyond the neighborhoods. Through a partnership with the Chicago Park District, Growing Power has worked with local youth to create a summer urban farm in Grant Park. Through this program, area food pantries and soup kitchens enjoyed a steady bounty of sustainably-produced, culturally appropriate produce. Chicagoans aren’t the only ones taking notice. With accolades from the US Department of Agriculture and the Ford Foundation, Growing Power is busy extending its comprehensive vision for sustainable and accessible local food systems across America.

If you could imagine an alternative food system (for Chicago or for your community), how would it operate and how would it be different from the current food system?

It’s about seeing some fundamental changes in larger systems issues. Each region has the power and capacity to develop a sustainable food system, but they all would be pretty different. I think a lot about issues of transparency of information, and questions of access and choice—basically, if there were multiple choices out there for people that were realistically parallel, then, people would make different choices. Part of what scares me about the food system we have now is how mysterious it is to people. There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know, that a lot of people don’t know, about what the effects are of things that are going into their food, or the chain of reactions that come out of their purchasing choices. These things are pretty much invisible. If people had a sense of their effects, and if it was accessible information, then I think people would make different demands and choices about their food, almost instantly.
To a certain extent I feel like corporations are pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes, and that makes me angry. Yet I also feel that it’s a question of democratizing the series of choices that people have. Choices are distributed unevenly, and also, you can’t just give people more information and then not offer them ways to make better choices. So it’s both. It’s about creating access, and creating multiple choices in every community so people can say, “I know all these things, and I’m comfortable with my routine.” Or, they could say, “I know all these things, and I’m demanding something different, and here are my demands.” The other part of this information piece is about internalizing all the aspects of our food system that have been externalized, in terms of the cost food. All of the health issues that come out of the products that are available now are not internalized in the cost of food. So people think that food is cheap, but their health care costs are high. That’s part of the mystery of the food system we have. These links need to be made. Once people talk about food in different ways, there are all sorts of local solutions that can grow out of people saying, “I need something different.”
Localness is so much about information, knowledge and closeness to a situation. If you have a deep relationship, or even just an understanding of the process that your food takes, that’s a form of localness that is very valuable. I’m hesitant to imagine an alternative food system by saying, “There have to be this many farms, and within this many miles of the people who are eating from them.” It’s more about choices, understanding. People want what’s right for their families, for the planet, for their communities and other communities.
Chicago is an interesting place because there is so much vacant space within the city limits. I think the figure is 66,000 vacant acres inside Chicagoland. That’s a lot of farmland. But, it’s not farmland until we all really understand how to a.) farm safely and sustainably, make really good soil because all that space is just concrete, and contaminated with lead and all sorts of scary things, and b.) Address the issue of infrastructure. There are very few precedents for institutions that make food, stores that buy food, whatever, to source their food locally. Everyone is used to the Sysco truck pulling up once a month with one delivery of pre-chopped, peeled and pickled garlic coming out of a jar. If you want to use Chicago’s potential farmland, and grow things in the city, you have to revamp people’s expectations about transportation, about invoicing and ordering. Farmers are not food processors, unless they have a value-added product. Restaurants, schools, and hotels are all used to getting their food pre-prepared, so that’s an issue. The baseline is that there is a big chunk of space inside the city that’s a valuable resource. The other thing that the Midwest has is a lot of rural land close to the city. The thing that happened here is that all of the rural land is all corn and soybeans, all huge monoculture, for the most part chemically dependent, GMO crops. There’s real potential here to utilize some of the rural space for some really diversified, small scale, independent growers that will have close access to city populations. In order for an entire city to have real choices about where their food comes from, you need to use the land within the city in new ways. It’s not just about the city, though, it’s also about what’s happening in rural communities as well.

Sure, it’s hard to know where to start, but the resources are all here, unlike someplace like New York. In New York, there’s just no vacant space in the city. Rural areas are much farther from the center of the city than here in Chicago. So again, each region has a completely different project in front of them. That’s why I hesitate to say: my local food system looks like this many farmers and this many people. If each region tackled the issues that face us all—diversifying, using open space in new ways, demanding that we get more information, changing some of the modern expectations about huge industrial food processors and growers, and how they serve us,- then each region can and will develop all the resources they need to troubleshoot an alternative food system specific to them.

Many urban agriculture projects are localized within specific communities, and operate on relatively small scales. Yet Growing Power has established partnerships throughout the city that have allowed it to tackle everything from food distribution networks to highly visible demonstration projects in Grant Park and Cabrini-Green, or food baskets for seniors living in public housing. How has Growing Power mobilized partners, the city government and many people to achieve these things?

The key to all of this is just really good soil. We have a two-acre urban farm in Milwaukee where we produce all this good soil. This allows us to do all kinds of things that a lot of community groups really struggle with because we have that fertility. We can walk into the Park District and say, “Here’s all this amazing nitrogen and soil that we have.” We have something to offer with each of our projects and partnerships—we have the basic building blocks that address the physical needs of any farming, gardening and growing project, which is this soil. People often struggle with staffing, time and dedicated people. Those are all real things. But there’s also the problem of searching for resources in a place where you’ve got great ideas, space, the fresh water, and a city government that is into greening. Here, the limitation is you have to have something to put your plants in. We have it.

Also, it’s a really special time to be in Chicago. All these important pieces are falling into place, allowing the city to be a leader. The city has a lot of problems. The neighborhood dynamics are intense, there are serious issues of access depending on where you live, and who you are. Yet whatever those limitations are, we have a local government that’s really supportive of green space initiatives, and willing to make them happen. There’s a big greening community in Chicago.

Growing Power also preaches this perspective of doing a little bit of everything, a deliberately comprehensive approach. There are so many variables in developing a food system. You will need people that can mobilize youth corps and churches. At the same time, it’s such an interdisciplinary issue, so GP’s intentional model to cover nine out of fifteen bases is working. We do the food distribution, we work with organic, gourmet and high-end vegetables in the parks. That’s really visible, but we also work on the community level. That comprehensiveness is a model for an ultimate solution to a new food system.

Even our highly visible program in the park was deliberately comprehensive. A lot of the varieties we grew there were high-end, because they were sexy and pretty to look at. Yet we mixed it up, too. We had the culturally appropriate food that we grow in the communities we work with, like collards and okra, Vietnamese melons, Chinese eggplants, and a lot of Latin American spices. We were trying to represent all the groups that we work with. All of these different levels of taste and cultural identity have to play a role. It was deliberate. That’s a different design than something like community gardens, where everything grown there is what people need, want and can cook.

Any visit to Chicago’s food co-ops or green markets will show that there is a thriving consumer and producer base dedicated to healthy food and sustainable farming. You get less of a sense of the rich socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of this movement, both in terms of its history and its contemporary context. How has Growing Power worked to tap into it and mobilize it?

Growing Power’s primary concern is food security and food access. We come at that from the perspective that the resource and the needs are in communities filled with people who aren’t shopping at Whole Foods. A great number of people who are generationally close to farming are living in communities on the south and west sides of Chicago that are primarily low income, and primarily communities of color. They are people who have come from other countries where their families are still farming, or through the Great Migration, families that have farmed. Alternative food movements need to come from these places. However small the buying power of these communities seems to be, their members are spending a great deal more money on the scary food. They are also suffering the most as a result. The perception is that their dollar is not powerful, that their consumer demand is not an enfranchised one. It’s not true. Their dollars are strong—they are funding all of these huge, vertically integrated food manufacturers and corporations. Frito Lay would be nothing without them. This needs to be talked about.

The work that we do on a community level is our primary concern. Whenever we do a high-end project, like at Grant Park, we incorporate a youth education component, youth from the com-munities that we focus on. The Market Basket program we run is geared toward affordability.

The food needs of low income populations of color are not being met by anyone yet, not even the alternative food system. All of the beautiful farming, cooking and eating that is happening in higher-end markets, what we call alternative food systems, is not a comprehensive solution. Not only because of price, but also because it’s very much about trend, an elite sophistication. Trends and sophistication can be a powerful driving force. There are people who would say that it’s the only driving force. Yet, trends come and go, or they can be co-opted, quite easily. So elite trends and sophistication are ultimately not a powerful place to come from when thinking about an alternative food movement. If there are community-based options that are affordable choices, people who spend a lot of money cooking for their families and looking for good food will continue to make healthy and sustainable choices, even when the trend is gone. We need to build a comprehensive, equitable approach with staying power.

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