Revision Street: Debbie Hillman, 59

Revision Street: Debbie Hillman, 59

Her long dark hair is streaked with grey and collected in a braid down her back. Debbie Hillman has brought handouts.

lakeI always bring a lot of handouts for people because sometimes it just does help. So I will tell you what I have, and in the process I’m also telling you what I’m doing.

Five years ago, I co-founded the Evanston Food Policy Council.

I’d always been active in the community. I’ve lived here in Evanston 32 years. I was a professional gardener for 25 years, and was always interested in sustainability, although when I was growing up we called it the environment, not sustainability. Some of us five years ago in Evanston, and then other people across the country, had this realization that if you only work on food, you’re basically addressing all of the other issues that are in the headlines, because our food system—the fact that we need food and we have farms and we have grocery stores and restaurants and waste management, sewage treatment plants—it’s all because we need food. If we didn’t need food, we wouldn’t be impacting the Earth the way we do, and we wouldn’t be setting up all sorts of social systems in exactly the way that we do. The food system reflects directly whether everything is working together or not. Right now, the fact that we have all these other problems is a clear indication that it’s not working together. We have energy problems, we have health problems, we have environmental problems, we have community dysfunction, family dysfunction, school issues … a great deal of it is directly related to the food system.

Five years ago I was 54, and I was kind of thinking, OK. What can I really do for the rest of my life to make the biggest impact instead of diddlying around the edges? And food just rang out, loud and clear. That’s the issue for me to work on. So we created the Food Policy Council. But the word policy makes a lot of people turn off, so within six months we decided to create an urban farm as a concrete project to get people to start asking questions, ‘cause the minute you hear urban farm, it’s like, Wow that’s weird. What is that, you know? Have I ever seen one before? What does one look like? What do you do there? So we created a non-profit called The Talking Farm, the farm with something to say.

That was in 2006. We’re actually still in negotiation for our main site but we have been very busy since 2006. We have created a mini-farm. Evanston has four main community garden sites, so one of the smaller ones had seven empty plots and we created our mini-farm. We put raised beds in, we had barrels, we had herb spirals, we tried to demonstrate all sorts of production techniques, it was a volunteer effort we got like 150 volunteers over the course of a summer to prepare everything, plant, harvest, weed. We sold some of the food to the local cafes and gave a lot of it away. It was our first effort.

Objectively Evanston is very diverse community, so there is a lot of intellectual discussion going on in Evanston. Northwestern, we’re a university town, we’re a college town, the citizens of Evanston practically staff all the environmental organizations that have Chicago offices, so there are people working globally or nationally or statewide and now we’re trying to say, Let’s do something in Evanston. I found like-minded people and it’s been totally fun. There isn’t anybody who isn’t interested, whether they have time or resources to give to an urban farm, they want to hear about it. There are a few people who object to us asking city or state or Congress for any help and we actually have not done much of that at all. The value of this project is, this is a citizen project.

So we created this mini-farm and we developed a reputation to that we were the go-to people in Evanston, Skokie, and really on the North Shore, to think about food projects, whether they were at schools, community gardens or a real urban farm like we’re trying to create.

Since we created the mini-farm, we actually handed it off to one of the schools. Our mini- farm was 4 blocks from Kingsley Elementary School, and they created a farmer-in-residence and actually came up with $2000 to pay someone who had the expertise and the skills and the passion to create all sorts of programming for the school. They didn’t know she would also be a parent. She worked directly with the teachers and the administration, so throughout 2008 and last year, she brought classes back and forth between the school.

They’re even discovering that four-block walk is a learning experience and it’s physical activity, which is something that everybody’s getting on board these days. Kids don’t have enough—none of us have enough. Look at me, I was a gardener for 25 years now three years, sitting behind a computer, this is what happen. Luckily the microphone can’t pick that up. [Laughs.]

So the farmer-in-residence with Kingsley is continuing this year. I know from every other school garden coordinators’ experience that when you bring kids into a garden setting and they plant and they see things grow and they take care of it, they will taste anything. They may not like it, but they will taste it.