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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Building a Healthier Chicagoland: Through Community Gardens

Jun 24, 2012 06:56PM ● By Linda Sechrist

The “Eat fresh, eat local” movement, which began in 1971 at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ restaurant, in Berkeley, California, has slowly grown from a bandwagon of locavores in search of fresh produce into a national trend.

Even First Lady Michelle Obama has enthusiastically embraced eating more homegrown fruits and vegetables and participating in community gardens as components of her Let’s Move! initiative. Additionally, state and county government departments of health are working to stem the rising rates of obesity and diabetes in adults and children by encouraging physical activity and facilitating better access to fresh, wholesome foods.

Locally, Building a Healthier Chicago (BHC) is a collaborative initiative among the Chicago Department of Health, the Office of the Regional Health Administrator of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the Chicago Medical Society and the Institute of Medicine Chicago. This initiative includes Building a Healthier Chicago’s Agribusiness Project, with a strategy to develop and maintain a system of more accessible food supply, distribution and markets, as well encouraging growing and markets in places where people live, work, play, pray and learn. BCH is also developing a working food desert model solution that is effective and self-sustaining.

Chicago’s effort to facilitate localized food production, a key component of which is enabling urban agriculture and community gardens, is aided by organizations such as Growing Power, the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council and hundreds of concerned residents that are enjoying a newfound sense of community, improving the esthetic value of property, contributing to food pantries and cleaning up crime by creating community gardens such as Altgeld-Sawyer Corner Farm, CROP, Green on McClean, The Organic Pantry Project, the Peterson Garden Project and many others.

Altgeld-Sawyer Corner Farm

For Altgeld-Sawyer Corner Farm’s communication lead, Brie Callahan, who previously knew few of her neighbors, cultivating community on what was once a vacant city lot in her Altgeld-Sawyer Corner FarmLogan Square neighborhood has been the greatest reward of gardening. “Our garden is a vibrant place for our meetings and classes. In a true collective style, there are approximately 100 of us who share garden tasks, learn together as we go, build on our successes each year and donate our produce to our community partner, The Christopher House, a nonprofit serving low-income families in the neighborhood,” explains Callahan.

Not all plants are edibles. Several are grown for the purpose of fiber- and dye-making, which is in alignment with the garden’s original purpose—to bring art and nature together. “Last year, a local artist installed her silhouette figures, normally displayed in a gallery, among the tomatoes, peppers and flowers,” Callahan says.

Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP)

Dave Snyder, founder of the nonprofit Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) and the president of its board of directors, founded the organization to establish rare-fruit orchards on reclaimed spaces in the city. He had only a hint of green on his thumb before moving from Seattle in 2004. In charge of the first certified organic rooftop farm in the country, at Uncommon Ground, Snyder values his eight-year history of hands-on learning in other Chicago community gardens. “I like that my story has inspired others who lacked the confidence to simply dig in,” Snyder says.

Snyder, along with other CROP board members, will share the labor for planting varieties of fruit trees that are rarely commercially grown. “The idea for the orchard, planned for less than an acre in the Logan Square neighborhood, is the result of my involvement and learning with community gardening,” notes Snyder, who explains that one aspect of CROP’s mission is to educate communities about crop diversity and what can be accomplished in the small space of a back or front yard.

“We want people to realize that they don’t need a large piece of land to plant varieties of dwarf trees such as pear and apple,” he states.

Green on McLean

For nearly 30 years, Chicago police knew the 3500 block of McLean Street as a place that attracted gang members. “We created the community garden on a lot that had been vacant for 11 years more to establish a sense of community and change the dynamic of the neighborhood street corner than to produce food,” says Green on McLean founder Mike Nowak, the TV host for Dig In Chicago, who jokingly refers to the group’s efforts as guerilla gardening—no official committee, no fencing, toolshed or dues.

“We raised funds to cover costs by asking neighbors and nearby businesses for money or supplies, such as the fabric that protects our new soil from lead contamination,” he explains.

For two growing seasons, the garden has also served as a park for picnics and potlucks, making it the focal point for kids and adults in the community, as well as for some previous residents who had moved several neighborhoods away. “The majority of us met for the first time,” says Nowak, an 11-year resident of the neighborhood who is happier knowing people who live on his block.

Photo by Nancy Boucha
Photo by Nancy Boucha
“We don’t all know each other’s name or speak the same language, but we overcame those barriers and got things done, including relieving gang members of a gathering space,” says Nowak.

The Organic Pantry Project

Glenview resident Jen Roberts oversees two gardens for The Organic Pantry Project (TOPP): the Peace Garden, at Pleasant Ridge School, and the Rainbow Garden, at Glenview Community Church, as well as two garden plots at Wagner Farm’s Community Garden, where she is the plot programmer. Roberts, a self-taught solo gardener who teaches gardening classes and acts as an education resource at Wagner Farm, felt the urge to get involved in donation gardening while donating cans of food in 2009 to the Northfield Food Pantry, the recipient of produce from garden projects which Roberts oversees.

“It occurred to me that our community is only as strong as the least able, and we needed to strengthen everyone by providing access to healthy food,” says Roberts, who enjoys gardening with children. “Kids work with us and learn not only about organic gardening, but also math, while tallying up the weight of the produce we donate. Kids get really excited about taste testing the foods they grow, especially this year’s purple string beans.”

The Peterson Garden Project

In 2009, LaManda Joy, founder of The Peterson Garden Project, noticed a photo of a WWII Victory Garden in her neighborhood butcher shop. A Master Gardener and Square Foot Gardening instructor, Joy is the daughter of a real “Rosie the Riveter” and veteran of the allied occupation of Japan, which was why the picture inspired her to do research on victory gardens, yielding several interesting facts. During the war, Chicago led the Victory Garden movement, even though 90 percent of its citizens had never gardened before, and the garden in the photo was the present-day, weed-infested lot down the block from her butcher.

In 2010, a meeting with her alderman, neighbors and the property owners led to the installation of 157 raised beds in what became Chicago’s largest edible organic community garden.

“Since the Peterson Garden Project brought awareness to the story of Chicago’s role in the Victory Garden movement, at least in our little corner of the city, we thought it might be interesting this year—the 70th anniversary of the first Victory Garden season of WWII—to honor the achievements of those first Victory Gardens with a full-on revival and awareness campaign,” says Joy, who recently finished four large Pop-up Victory Garden installations on other North Side properties.

“Although our gardens are temporary, they will give people the opportunity to learn the basics about growing their own food and participating in community,” says Joy, who regularly blogs about the garden’s progress at

Photo by Nancy Boucha
Photo by Nancy Boucha

Perhaps the easiest place to dig in and cultivate personal, as well as community, health is a garden—a virtual “fruit and vegetable pharmacy,” offering positive impacts that reach beyond well-being. Why not take up a trowel and help grow the trend?


So You Want to Start a Community Garden

For both seasoned and inexperienced gardeners eager to dig in and join community garden activities, or start one of their own, there is no limit to the possibilities. Here are some great local resources and idea-starters to help dig in and get growing!

Community Gardens Featured in this month’s Natural Awakenings

Altgeld-Sawyer Farm,

Chicago Rarities Orchard (CROP),

Green on McLean Community Garden,

Growing Home Wood Street Urban Farm,

Organic Pantry Project,

Peterson Garden Project,

Growing Power/Growing Home Projects in Chicago

Growing Home Chicago,

Projects include:

Altgeld Gardens, in partnership with the Chicago Park District, on the southeast side

Farms at Chicago Housing Authority ABLA Homes and Roosevelt Square development

Grant Park Art on the Farm Urban Agriculture Potager, in partnership with the Chicago Park District and Moore Landscapes

Iron Street Urban Farm, in the Bridgeport neighborhood

The Chicago Lights Urban Farm, in collaboration with the Fourth Presbyterian Church, in the Cabrini-Green community

Tru Blooms fragrance farm, in Grant Park

Getting Started

American Community Gardening Association,

Every Last Morsel,

KAM Isaiah Israel Food Justice and Sustainability and urban farm,

United States Department of Agriculture,

University of Illinois Extension Service,,


Home Pick-up, Collective Resource,

Start Your Own, Urban Worm Girl,

Support Organizations

Chicago Metropolitan Area Planning (CMAP) GoTo2040,

College of Lake County–Sustainability Center,

Conserve Lake County,

The Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition,

More Ways to Get Involved

Growing Power and Urban Farm in Milwaukee,

The Lake County Community Foundation,

The Plant,

The Talking Farm (Howard Street Farm),