Veggies in City Planters: Tasty Kale Bait or Jailbait? | WBEZ
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Veggies in City Planters: Tasty Kale Bait or Jailbait?

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Amy Yanow was taking one of her usual autumn walks around the city, when she and her pal ran into an unusually tempting public planter in Lincoln Park.

“Inside there were greens like kale and colorful chard where you’d usually find flowers and perennials,” she recalls.

“At first we made jokes about being able to run around the city and make salads with them, but then I thought that there are a lot of nonprofits who are trying to feed people in Chicago and this seemed like it could be beneficial to those who need it.”

So she did what any curious citizen would do and submitted her question to Curious City:

“Why are there vegetables (mostly cabbage and other leafy vegetables) in the planters around the city? Does anyone eat them? ... Do people ever go around gathering this planter food to make a nice salad? I've been tempted.”

Well, Amy, I’ve been tempted too, especially when I’ve forgotten to eat breakfast and passed a downtown planter of pebbly dinosaur kale, colorful rainbow chard and frilly blue cabbage-like decorative kale. I might have even wondered if I could snip off a few leaves, chop them up and mix them into an office omelet — all on the dime of the agencies that maintain them: the Chicago Department of Transportation, Streets and Sanitation and the Park District.

But Amy also had a less selfish notion. She knows that several groups around town are working hard to make produce — especially nutrient-rich green leafy vegetables — more accessible, affordable and appealing to under-served populations. So, she has a kicker question, too: “I wonder if the food [is] wasted or collected by an organization.”

Well, could these big, publicly-maintained planters make a dent in hunger by providing veggies for the occasional salad or community hunger relief? And, more broadly are these greens good for eating?

Some bad news

I’ve asked the relevant city departments, as well as local foragers and horticulturalists, and the general consensus is: “Not really” and “no.”

Susan Hofer at the Chicago Department of Transportation, which oversees median planting, says that this lovely — if theoretically edible — vegetation is planted “strictly for aesthetics.”

(Monica Eng/WBEZ)

“So we sometimes can use non-edible pesticides to deal with a lot of the critters around here,” she says. “You don’t want to be eating plants treated with what we treat them with.”

And, what might those chemicals be? Hofer says, for safety reasons and because the critters vary, the city can’t say which chemicals they use.

But she also stresses that this the kale, chard and cabbage is “planted for the enjoyment of the general public” and she doesn’t think that includes one person’s belly.

Although Hofer isn’t aware of a movement (organized or not) to collect this vegetation for salad, she warns it would be unwise, at the very least, on a safety level.   

But what about the flavor level? Chicago chef and master forager Iliana Regan of Elizabeth Restaurant doubts it would be worth the trouble.

“If they are the ones I’m thinking of [frilly, decorative kale heads] those leaves are actually really fibrous,” Regan says. “They’re bred to be decorative, and so I think you’d be better off at the farmers market. ... You have no idea what people are throwing in there or peeing in there.”

Regan says that when she forages for food she generally goes deep into the country because, among other things, much of Chicago’s soil is contaminated with various toxins, especially lead.

Even Nance Klehm, one of Chicago’s legendary urban foragers, has her doubts. She’s led foraging expeditions through cities for years, but she thinks planter fare is less than ideal.

“In general you don’t want to be foraging in places where you get splashes from cars or things that are coming off of sidewalks,” she says. “Also, people spend a lot of money on fall displays and so they expect the plants to be in certain shape so they probably are raised on chemical fertilizers. That’s why I wouldn’t eat them, more than any other reason.”

Although Klehm advises caution, she doesn’t want to imply that store-bought food is always better or a path to completely avoiding toxins.

“I try to avoid foraging outside a bar where people are dumping their ashes drink or God only knows. But with a good wash something you get from the sidewalk could be better than something you get from the store, depending on the condition it was in,” she says.

And, besides, urban agriculture can be done safely. Gardeners and farmers are growing food in hundreds of plots across the city, albeit in remediated soil and sometimes pure, organic compost. And other cities have developed extensive public orchards to help feed citizens for free.

I ask Hofer of CDOT if Chicago officials have also considered a plan like this — maybe using different soil and chemicals in their planters so that the edible plants could be enjoyed by all.  

“Because of pests, bugs and other things that find their way into planters, it would not be practical,” she says. “If you think about the things that find their way onto our streets, alleys and gutters, would you want to trust that those same things didn’t find their way into planters containing ‘edible’ products?”

Still interested? Better get a lawyer

OK, but what would happen if, knowing all this, you still decide to pick that chard and chop it into your omelet?

I asked Bill McCaffery at the City’s Law Department about its legality and he points to this city ordinance.

8-4-120 – Damage to public property

No person shall cut, injure, mark, damage or deface any public building, sewer, water pipe, or hydrant, or other city property, fixture or personal property, or any tree, grass, shrub or walk in any public way or public park.

Any person violating this section shall be fined not less than $500.00 nor more than $1000.00 for each offense.

A person violating this section could be issued a notice of violation to appear in either the Department of Administrative Hearings, or one of the City’s branch courts.

So, there you have it. That leaf of rainbow chard that seemed so appealing just moments before you read this story could have been grown in artificial fertilizer, bear traces of unsavory pesticide and a coat of airborne toxins — but it could also cost you $500 to $1,000 in fines and court time if you pick and eat it.

By this measure, even the highest farmers market prices seem like a bargain.

P.S. There is one big exception to all of this. One of the gardens in Grant Park (the Potagers Garden in North President’s Court to be exact) does contain edible plants — chard, kale, herbs, edible flowers and gourds — that are mostly grown to be eaten by people. The garden is run jointly by the Chicago Park District and the urban farm Growing Power. But it serves as a youth education and development program, and the artfully grown heirloom edibles are destined for farmers markets to help sustain Growing Power programs. These programs help educate youth, develop community gardens and make local produce more accessible to the people of Chicago.

Growing Power Youth Program coordinator Lauralyn Clawson encourages visitors to enjoy the garden visually. “But we definitely don’t encourage people to pick the food,” she says. “Instead, they can support our programming by purchasing the produce at one of our markets or farm stands around Chicago.”

Offhandedly, I ask Clawson if they ever grow tomatoes in the garden.

“No,” she says. “A nice red tomato would be too tempting for people to pick.”

More about our questioner

Amy Yanow grew up in the Chicago suburbs, studied environmental communications at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has lived in the city for several years. Today she works in public relations and is involved in sustainability and health related initiatives around the city.  She says her work with CNT’s Young Innovators and Chicago Foundation for Women’s Young Women’s Giving Council made her more aware of the need to find innovative ways to help feed underserved populations in the city — making those planters seem even more intriguing.


Amy says she’s a fan of long urban walks (The 606), public radio and “kale chips, even though my boyfriend tells me they’re passe and so 2011.”


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