The Power of Urban Agriculture

by Vicki Gerberich

One of my favorite aspects of teaching the SUST 230 Food course in RU’s Sustainability Studies program is the fact that I have the opportunity to talk about urban agriculture and often introduce students to organizations and people growing their community through food, often in their own backyard. In simple terms, urban agriculture can be viewed as agricultural production within the cores of metropolitan areas, usually for purposes beyond home consumption.

Hoop house at Growing Power’s Iron Street Farm (V. Gerberich)

But, in more complex terms, urban agriculture plays a much bigger and more influential role in a community. Urban agriculture often plays an educational role, which can be found at community and schoolyard gardens throughout the country. Urban agriculture also plays an economic role in communities in the form of community supported agricultural (CSA) production, distribution and marketing of food and other products along with job training and skills development. Urban agriculture also has a social role to play in community development, advocating for food justice, at-risk youth programs and community integration.

Here is a list of the many benefits that urban agriculture offers, as outlined by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California Davis:

Social Impacts
• Creating Safe Places/Reducing Blight
• Access to Land
• Community Development/Building Social Capital
• Education and Youth Development Opportunities
• Cross-Generational and Cultural Integration

Health Impacts
• Food Access and Security
• Increased Fruit and Vegetable Consumption
• Food and Health Literacy
• General Well-Being (Mental Health and Physical Activity)

Economic Impacts
• Job Creation, Training, and Business Incubation
• Market Expansion for Farmers
• Economic Savings on Food
• Savings for Municipal Agencies
• Increased Home Values

Therefore, considering the plethora of benefits that urban agriculture brings to a community, it is very satisfying knowing that Chicago is among the leaders in sustainable urban agriculture. However, given the many benefits, it can not go unsaid that urban agriculture also has its many challenges, including land use issues – from contamination and blight to ownership and zoning issues.

RU students tour the Iron Street Farm in Chicago (V. Gerberich)

For over four years, I have been organizing field trips for my SUST 230 classes to tour Growing Power’s Iron Street facility. Growing Power is the result of Will Allen’s dedication to providing the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago with safe, healthy and affordable food and thus growing a larger food movement throughout the county.

Located on seven acres of asphalt on the city’s south side, the Iron Street location (3333 S. Iron Street) was a phenomenal example of what a small community of determined individuals can accomplish — turning an abandoned warehouse and its loading areas into highly productive agricultural plots and an education center. Every class that came to tour this site, was amazed at the level and variety of production with everything from aquaponics to vermicomposting (composting with worms) with bees, chickens, goats, heirloom grains, kale in all varieties, mushrooms, strawberries, tilapia, and tomatoes in between.

Mural and picnic area, Iron Street Farm, Chicago (V. Gerberich)

One summer, my class of all female students spent an hour or more sifting through the worm bins. It was one of the more delightful afternoons — a group of individuals ranging in ages, interests and background discussing the ways of the world over bins of discards that now more resembled the gold dirt that will go back to feed the seeds that we will eventually eat. This is the great gift of urban agriculture: bringing together folks from different walks of life for one common mission — safe, healthy and affordable food.

Therefore, it was a shock when I was confirming this semester’s tour at Growing Power and noticed some conflicting information. I was reviewing the website’s tour page with the class when I noticed that the top of the page still mentioned tours at the Iron Street location, but the bottom of the page listed the Chicago South Farm as the location of their public tours. After talking to someone in the Chicago office, I learned that the Iron Street location was abruptly closed and is no longer part of the Growing Power organization.

As I understood it, Growing Power did not own the land they had been working and transforming into an urban agricultural spectacle. And, it was within the last few months that the landowner decided to no longer rent that property to Growing Power. While I do not know the details of the situation, I do know that they had a lot to dismantle and move within a short period of time. I also know that this setback will not keep Growing Power from continuing to do all the good that they do. However, I suspect that the removal of such an institution will be a significant setback for the community.

The closing of this farm also impacted my class, as they were not able to visit this location and see firsthand the awesomeness of this 7-acre site. I believe that after touring this facility, my students realized the power of food, community, and justice. Here are just a few of the insights from previous classes:

Growing Power’s Fresh Moves bus (V. Gerberich)

Simone Dowdell stated: “What impressed me the most about Growing Power is the mobile farmers markets. I think that it’s a great idea to travel with fresh local produce to the people that need it most. I hope that program really takes off and they can do it in cities around the country because it could greatly decrease food deserts.”

Shelby McMasters thought that “the Will Allen’s idea of Growing Power was amazing in that not only does Growing Power grow locally, but gives back to the community also by allowing children to volunteer after school and giving some of them jobs when the graduate.”

Erika Rainey-Willaims describes her key take-aways from the tour: “Sustainability is a creative science that requires outside thinkers. Urban farming is totally unique and in a class of its own. When it comes to urban farming, it’s not about building more, its about using the space you already have. Urban farming is about more than producing healthy, sustainable food. It’s about joining communities and empowering each other.”

Luckily, Growing Power will be offering tours at their South Farm, a 14-acre food and fitness park that is a collaborative project between Growing Power and the Chicago Park District located at 8900 S. Green Bay Avenue.  And also luckily, Chicago has several choices when it comes to urban agriculture, from Growing Home to Windy City Harvest.

​Side note: Fighting eviction is apparently not uncommon, as it even happened to the infamous gangsta guerilla gardener, Ron Finley.

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From the Growing Power website: “Growing Power has served as a ”living museum” or “idea factory” for the young, the elderly, farmers, producers, and other professionals ranging from USDA personnel to urban planners. Training areas include the following: acid-digestion, anaerobic digestion for food waste, bio-phyto remediation and soil health, aquaculture closed-loop systems, vermiculture, small and large scale composting, urban agriculture, permaculture, food distribution, marketing, value-added product development, youth education, community engagement, participatory leadership development, and project planning.”

Vicki Gerberich is Adjunct Professor of Sustainability Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt University. A longtime gardener with expertise in environmental planning, nutrition and wellness, and sustainability education, Gerberich regularly teaches SUST 230 Food and 240 Waste. She also is an active member of the Environmental Sustainability Committee at Roosevelt.


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