Growing Chicago: Food Access and Urban Agriculture

By Nikki Braus for SUST 350

My friends frequently brag about the convenience of living within the heart of Chicago’s densely-settled urban landscape — everything is so close together, and everything you need is within walking distance or just a bus ride away! But some of them rarely bring home fresh produce from their travels, as the nearest grocer supplying them is far enough away that it is deemed an inconvenience to bring home regularly. Cooking from home or having fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on is viewed as a treat or chore, or passed up for processed foods found at the Dollar General a half block away.

When an urban community finds itself over a mile away from any grocers selling fresh produce, it is considered to be residing within a food desert. This means that while convenience stores full of dry goods and salty snacks may be clustered around their residence, most of anything considered nutritious and health-conscious is far out of reach. This is a problem that affects more than just a handful of my college-age friends, it can impact entire neighborhoods and communities — particularly those on the South and West Sides of Chicago. When supermarkets and grocery stores cannot be convinced to settle down in these areas, those within said communities have very few options for finding an affordable way to support their diet with healthy and fresh food.

RU students worked at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm for SUST 350 Service & Sustainability
(M. Bryson, May 2012)

There is one option, however, that seems to be gaining more and more ground as the years go by. Urban agriculture—whether it be through community gardens, planters full of tomatoes on balconies, edible landscaping, or full-fledged urban farms—is taking root in Chicago. It is a solution that at-risk families in impoverished neighborhoods within the city limits can look forward to as more and more examples of urban agriculture production are popping up from out of the ground (and out of roofs, too!). When a family cannot afford to travel long distances to purchase fresh goods–which are usually priced higher but of lower quality—they can count on the outputs of local community gardens to provide fresh produce. If more community gardens open to the public in these neighborhoods were erected, inhabitants in need of nutritious sustenance could leave with more than a handful of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Urban agriculture not only provides benefits in the kitchen, but also in schools. Instilling the desire to garden and educating children in nutrition through hands-on experiences have proven to be effective ways to increase their fruit and vegetable intake throughout the course of their lives. If implemented in all schools, especially those in at-risk communities, we can give youth a better chance at living healthy by giving them the training and tools they need to create a self-sufficient and sustainable future for themselves through gardening.

Susan Richardson’s short article entitled “Food Gardens Help Revitalize Chicago’s Englewood” profiles the community gardens that have sprung up in and throughout the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. She describes the benefits beautifying these formerly-vacant lots has had on the community and public safety, as well as identifies Englewood as a food desert that could greatly improve from the presence of food-bearing community gardens. Her account of the restoration taking place in Englewood provides a first-hand look at urban agriculture in action at the heart of Chicago’s most at-risk populace—the disenfranchised, low-income residents of what has been characterized as a “failing” area.

Englewood Heritage Station comm garden

Englewood Heritage Station community garden in Chicago IL (source: Englewood Heritage Station)

Community gardens aside, there are other ways to incorporate food security into our landscape designs, some of which are almost strictly decorative. I’ve recently seen this first hand at Randhurst’s outdoor mall, where edible greens and colorful peppers were planted amongst fall flowers. Darrin Nordahl, author of the book Public Produce, suggests using medians and lining our sidewalks with productive plants (such as replacing current city trees with fruit-bearing ones), taking urban agriculture to a level of widespread edible landscaping.

Dotting our concrete jungle with copious amounts of produce-bearing plants may not happen in Chicago within the next few years, but it would be an effective way in giving some citizens a small amount of food security through foraging. Additionally, it would give children in the community much more exposure to seeing food grow, which can be helpful even in a passive setting (as with medians or planters in front of businesses). Nordahl also does a great job of addressing food deserts for urban areas and using plants in schools with our children as a way to learn about food.

Geanna Pecaski McLennan, author of the article “’Ready, Set, Grow!’ Nurturing Young Children Through Gardening,” shows us that children from in low-income urban areas could learn so much from sowing seeds, tending sprouts, and eventually harvesting the fruits of their labor. Exposing at-risk children to the joys of nurturing a plant not only gives them a sense of accomplishment; it also makes them more likely to consume a higher amount of fruits and vegetables.

Such was the case with McLennan’s students—it even got many of the parents involved with growing and eating healthy food, which most likely would not have happened otherwise if the opportunity had not risen in the classroom. McLennan’s hands-on experience with the positive effects gardening has on children (and by extension, their families) in low-income urban areas is vital in grasping how beneficial and far-reaching the introduction of urban agriculture can be in our schools.

I’d love to see the greenery in Chicago grow exponentially in my lifetime, as I know our citizens and children will grow with it. Closing the gap left by food deserts, revitalizing empty lots and purely-decorative landscaping into being beautiful and practical sources of nourishment, and teaching our children how to turn a patch of dirt into dinner are all admirable ways for greenery to take root in our city, as well as in others. There is so much to gain and nothing to lose by implementing urban agriculture throughout the Chicago cityscape. We gain food security, small-scale sustainability, social justice, and beauty by moving towards a future that helps ensure our and our children’s education, environment, and overall health. So, go out and grow!


  • Nordahl, Darrin. (2009). Public produce. Washington DC: Island Press.
  • Pecaski McLennan, Deanna. (Mar 2010). “Ready, Set, Grow!” Nurturing young children through gardening. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(5), 329-333.
  • Richardson, Susan. (19 July 2010). Food gardens help revitalize Chicago’s Englewood. Seeding Chicago. Demand Media.

Nikki Braus is a senior Sustainability Studies major and Environmental Studies minor at Roosevelt University in Chicago IL.


This entry was posted in agriculture, cities, courses, education, food, Roosevelt, students. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Growing Chicago: Food Access and Urban Agriculture

  1. Greg Mucci says:

    Excuse me Nikki. The Englewood Community Garden you pictured was not the Englewood in Chicago I know. (Mountains in the background?).

  2. rusust says:

    Editor’s note: Thanks for catching this, Mr. Mucci. The previous photo was posted in error by the site editor (not the author), and has been corrected.

Comments are closed.