Urban Farming and Food Deserts

City Farms grows kale in view of the Chicago skyline. (Image: Linda N. CC/by)

By Cassandra West

Visitors to Chicago often rave about the food—the varied and sophisticated restaurant scene and all the different choices they find here. But for many non-visitors — some living within blocks of the high-end eateries found downtown and in other upscale, gentrified neighborhoods — food is a different story. The food choices available to them can be woefully limited and inferior.

The author

Cassandra West is an independent journalist and founding editor of SeedingChicago.com.

Almost 400,000 of Chicago’s three million residents live in areas considered “food deserts,” according to recent research. These food deserts (a term some local activists reject as masking deeper structural problems) offer little or no access to fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. Located primarily on Chicago’s South and West Sides, food-insecure areas don’t attract the kind of economic investment needed to create jobs and maintain stable housing and competitive neighborhood schools.

Research has shown that in neighborhoods with the worst food access, residents die from cardiovascular-related illnesses at nearly twice the rate of those in areas with access to well-stocked food markets.

(Image: Edvydas Cicenas CC by/sa)

Exporting food, importing food

Chicago, the economic and cultural center of the 27th most populous metropolitan area in the world, is located in a state that ranks second among all states in agricultural exports. Illinois has 28 million acres of the world’s richest and most productive agricultural soils, but 99 percent of its food is imported from outside the state. Illinois consumers spend approximately $48 billion annually for food, according to the Illinois Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council.

In 2007 the state General Assembly charged the council with crafting a statewide plan for local food system development. The council is working to on ways to improve the infrastructure that supports food production, create more food-related jobs and get food from the fields to the table more quickly. In February, the Illinois Senate adopted a resolution urging Congress “to adopt a farm bill that supports and promotes the development of local and regional food systems.”

Grocery options are limited on the far South Side. (Image: Zol87 CC by/nc)

Within Chicago, a number of organizations and individuals have been working to address access to food. The Chicago Food Advisory Council drafted a “Vision for Food Policy in Chicago.” Expanding outlets for healthy food purchases in neighborhoods and increasing local food production are two components of that vision.

A local feast, made in Chicago and surrounding farms. (Image: whitneyinchicago CC/by)

Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a loose coalition of individuals and organizations, has pushed for ways to enhance urban agriculture opportunities in the city. In September, the City Council approved the Urban Agricultural Zoning Code Amendment to promote the expansion of community gardening and urban farming within city limits. Five weeks later, Growing Home, a decade-old social enterprise providing training in organic agriculture at two urban farms, broke ground for a new one-acre farm in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood many consider a food desert.And in a nearby industrial area known as Back of the Yards, a green entrepreneur is converting an 87-year-old meatpacking facility into a 95,000-square-foot vertical farm, the nation’s first.

Big boxes and roof gardens

Recently, corporate chains such as big-box retailer Wal-Mart and drug retailer Walgreens have attempted to answer some of the food access issues by adding stores and selling more fruits and vegetables in economically-depressed neighborhoods. Two years ago Walgreens partnered with two health organizations to create food “prescriptions” that would educate patients on better food choices.

And, in a city where dining out is stitched into the social and cultural fabric, more restaurants are emphasizing local foods, purchasing from small growers in the city or farms within driving distance—or installing green rooftops to grow their own produce. Two restaurateurs on the Near North Side recently announced plans to build the largest rooftop garden in the Midwest, around 20,000 square feet.

“We can be a city that’s focusing on food production,” says Ken Dunn, founder and president of the Resource Center, a pioneer in urban agriculture. People like Dunn and Debbie Hillman, a food activist who co-founded the Illinois Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Council, envision nothing less than a complete transformation of the region’s and the state’s food systems.

“When I found food, it immediately streamlined my thinking,” Hillman says. “I said, ‘That’s all I have to work on and we will solve every other problem that we have created.’”

As Chicago looks to its future, food—its source and its security­—will be vital to maintaining a vibrant and economically strong foundation.

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