Saturday, August 2, 2008

Wood Street Urban Farm Tour

As part of a field trip with the Office of Sustainability, I visited Wood Street Urban Farm. Wood Street Urban Farm is located on a once empty concrete lot in Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Wood Street Urban Farm is one of three farms run by Growing Home, a non-profit whose mission is to “provide job training and create employment opportunities for homeless and low-income people in Chicago within the context of a non-profit organic agriculture business.” Their three farm sites – two located on Chicago’s south side and one outside the city in Marseilles, IL – act as classrooms that allow program participants to learn job and life skills, and gain valuable hands-on experience with organic agriculture. At Wood Street Urban Farm, we met with Orrin Williams, the Employment Training Coordinator and Case Manager for Growing Home. He overseas all aspects of Growing Home’s job-readiness program for hard-to-employ women and men, most of whom have been homeless and/or incarcerated.

As Orrin gave us the tour of the three hoophouses (unheated greenhouses that grow crops year round) I found myself humbled and awed by the magnitude of this simple idea. The idea is simple (bring fresh food and job training to a community that lacks fresh food and jobs) and yet it holds power. Urban Agriculture provides a source of transformative power for communities weakened by unemployment, poor health, and vacant real estate. It is a model that can be replicated on many different scales - from large organized undertakings like Growing Home or backyard efforts. Growing Home took an 8400 square foot concrete slab that had stood vacant collecting broken glass and trash for over 30 years, and transformed it into something that serves the community.

Growing Home’s future plans for Wood Street Urban Farm are even more impressive. They are in the process of constructing a classroom and office space for their job training program, a multi-purpose building that will include a permanently attached greenhouse, processing and storage space, and rooms for offices and meetings. Their plans also include a neighborhood-beautifying landscaping project that includes a living wall, flower boxes, an area for a farm stand on the east side of the site, and an “edible fence” with fruit trees and bushes on the west side of the site. Finally, Growing Home is committed to making their farm as energy efficient as possible with solar panels, a power tower made of either photovoltaic panels or a wind turbine that will provide energy for the site, and a green roof.

Wood Street Urban Farm harnesses the untapped resources of labor and land in their community, uses these resources to create momentum and positive feed back, while conserving strained natural resources. Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm is not only a model for transitional job training programs, but for urban green farming as well. I am excited to have this innovative model here in Chicago and look forward to watching them grow :)

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