When Vegetables Stir the Pot

August 20, 2007

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Growing Home urban farm in Englewood
People who live in Englewood have complained for years that they don't have enough decent, nearby grocery stores. And organic vegetables? Almost impossible to find. But now the city's first year-round urban farm has opened on a vacant lot in the South Side neighborhood.
It's one of the many changes meant to make life better in the largely low-income community. But those changes can draw the ire of neighbors who challenge whether improvements like fresh vegetables are really for them.
Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore has the story.

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Davon is the rare nine-year-old who's keen on vegetables.

DAVON: I like carrots, broccoli.

His grandmother Denise Richardson brought him to a new farm at 58th and Wood, walking distance from her home.

Ambi: crackle sound

The crackle of concrete underfoot reminds you this is an urban farm. But it grows garden standards like tomatoes and spinach. And the open air market also has funky crops like purple basil, arugula and lemon cucumbers.

Imported soil is bedded in warm greenhouses that can even cultivate watermelon in the winter. Richardson says Englewood is parched for healthy produce.

RICHARDSON: (Sighs)…If you don't go up on Western or up to Ashland to 67th street, there is no fresh markets around here.

An eleven-year-old nonprofit called Growing Home is behind the farm. It has trained more than 100 workers at three farm sites in the city and rural Illinois.

The idea is to bring on people who often don't get hired—ex-convicts or people who are homeless. Growing Home uses agriculture to provide transitional employment. Part of the week the workers spend training in the city and the other day is toiling on a farm 75 miles south of Chicago.

They learn horticulture, nutrition and organic farming.

RODGERS: I'm one of the ones who really don't have what you may call job skills, you know what I'm saying. This was an opportunity for me to learn how to grow and also be employed at the same time.

Tyra Rodgers finished Growing Home training two years ago. Now he helps run the three-quarters of an acre Englewood plot. That may not seem controversial…but as he's describing his duties, we are interrupted.

BULLHORN: They don't give the community nothing. This is a poverty pimp program. They don't bring them nothing. They over here exploiting the community.

That's Fred Hampton Jr., a perennial neighborhood activist. He's the namesake of the Black Panther leader killed by police in 1969.

ambi

The executive director of Growing Home is white. That irks Hampton. He says blacks, Englewood residents and youth weren't given the chance to be a part of the training. He also says outsiders shouldn't be allowed in the community.

Skepticism of outsiders is a common reaction in a neighborhood on the receiving end of reinvestment dollars for housing, social services and commercial redevelopment. Vegetables can become an easy symbol.

On this particular humid afternoon, racial slurs and accusations hang in the air like ripe fruit.
 
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Hampton's brought along a handful of people. They spit nasty words at Growing Home graduate and now staffer Orrin Williams. He brushes off the criticism.

WILLIAMS: I live three blocks west of Englewood. What does that mean? What does that mean? Doesn't mean anything. Community. What's community? Where do they think these people come from?

But Hampton keeps it up.

HAMPTON: Nobody is from this community. No one here is from this community. No one. No one. No one.

Ambi: What about him? He's black. He works here.

Somebody here besides me notices the farm trainees are all black. One of the farm workers is Tyra Rodgers. He says he has spent time in and out of prison. He says he's shocked at pushback he's getting from the protestors, given his former corner hustle.

RODGERS: But now that I'm not doing that I come over here and try to be productive and I'm being boycotted. By the same people I stood side by side with? He says the program has given him the tools to change his life.

And so far Englewood residents seem happy at the prospect of crisp fruits and vegetables. Alderman Toni Foulkes counts herself as one of those, and calls the weekly market good for Englewood.

One neighborhood woman just came upon the farm grounds by accident. She didn't want to chat.

WOMAN: You know what ma'am, I'm just trying to get out of here. I didn't know what I was walking into. I was stopping to get some vegetables.

She says she's just looking to buy some beets.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.