Englewood seeks celebrity help to keep school open near urban garden

May 10, 2013

WBEZ/Natalie Moore
Yvette Moyo sits in the Englewood Eat to Live Garden. It’s at Yale Elementary, which is slated to close.

Students at Yale Elementary enjoy spring weather during recess. Laughter wafts from the playground. Girls in school uniforms chat in the grass, away from younger students.

Next to the school, on 70th Street and Princeton Avenue, is a vast garden, larger than most backyard gardens. Adult volunteers massage the soil to plant daffodils the color of bright sunshine.

In the summer, this mini-farm—with the help of children—will grow tomatoes, greens and dill. The garden is called Eat to Live, and the kids even learn a little bit about urban agriculture and healthy eating in the classroom. Across the street from the garden there’s land that will become an urban farm this summer. Eat to Live Englewood will provide residents with a permanent space for food production, community learning and disease prevention education. The goal is to reduce health disparities.

But Yale is slated to close at the end of the academic year as part of the Chicago Public Schools controversial plan to shutdown 54 schools.

Pushback against school closings is familiar. Many communities champion their neighborhood school as unique. They argue that a one-size-fits-all policy shouldn’t be used to shut their school down. That’s true for parents at Yale Elementary School. They say the school’s urban garden fits right in with a burgeoning focus on urban agriculture in the larger Englewood community.

Parts of the Englewood neighborhood are in a food desert. Alisa Ivory’s two children attend Yale and she toils in the garden. She and garden neighbor Demetria Scott chat about healthy food and the impact the garden has had on their lives and their childrens’.

"We are some junk food junkies," Ivory says. "And now my idea is turning away from a lot of junk food. Because that’s what it is - junk for your body."

"We went to Aldi’s one day up the street, Michael was like can we get some plain yogurt and some granola. And some bananas. And I said oh, yeah, Michael, we can get that," Scott says.

Behind the garden, on the next street over, is a ghostly boarded-up home. It’s the house singer and actress Jennifer Hudson grew up in—and where members of her family were killed several years ago.

Hudson attended Yale Elementary. As part of its large restructuring plan, Chicago Public Schools is proposing to close Yale and move its students to Harvard Elementary, about a mile away. Both schools are on the bottom of CPS academic ratings in a poverty-stricken neighborhood.

Yvette Moyo is the director of Real Men Charities, which started the Yale Eat to Live garden. At one of the school closing hearings, Moyo revealed an idea.

“At the microphone I said, you could have called Jennifer Hudson and asked her is there something you want to do in the area that you grew up in and an area where tragedy took place. Would you like to see it come back to life again and would you play a role in it,” Moyo recalls.

Moyo just learned that Hudson’s representatives declined her request. But she figures there are other Chicagoans who might like to help make an urban agriculture elementary school. Quincy Jones, maybe, or Lupe Fiasco, Common, or R. Kelly. 

The city of Chicago is invested in reducing food instability around the neighborhood.

That’s a big reason Moyo doesn’t want Yale to close.

"The vision we’ve given to the children for two years is that they’re at the cutting edge of everything Chicago will be in the future and that is a part of an urban agriculture movement that not will only provide jobs but businesses for them and their parents, which is what’s really missing - the opportunity to be fruitful and to provide for families and communities," Moyo says. "When we talk about underemployment and the level of literacy the dropout rate of the parents even. This is something that we can provide for the community. And we kind of promised that we’ll be there for them, that they have added value by working in the Eat to Live Garden."

The school garden at Yale is heading into its second season.

Moyo says even if Yale closes at the end of the school year, plans for all the farms will continue.

And she says that’s why she’ll be going after other groups to help keep the school open.

So Moyo says she’ll keep writing letters to celebrities, and holding onto the garden’s mantra: "Everything Good Grows in Englewood."

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.