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The summer of 1943 witnessed a remarkable collective mobilization: Chicagoans produced more than 55,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables in nearly 175,000 Victory Gardens, small plots of land started by citizens to mobilize food production during World War I and II.

Not only was the volume harvested that summer unprecedented, but so was the number of new farmers who joined the movement. People from all walks of life started vegetable plots in empty lots around their neighborhoods.

Today, urban agriculture advocates use the success of the Victory Garden movement as a parable for how growing locally can be scaled up to feed families and bring communities together. Longtime Englewood resident and state Representative Sonya Harper believes that urban agriculture enterprises can have similar transformative effects on communities that have experienced a food shortage of a different kind.

“In one part of my district—the part that is a food desert, the part that is known for high rates of crimes and violence, the part that has no jobs or grocery stores,” she said. “We’ve seen how urban agriculture is a great way to put our land back to productive use.”

Several recent municipal policies further promote urban agriculture in neighborhoods with an excess of vacant land space. A 2011 amendment to the city’s zoning code expanded the size limit on community gardens to 25,000 square feet and relaxed regulations, to make it much easier to grow and sell produce on vacant lots in both residential and commercial areas. Another amendment to the compost ordinance in 2015 allowed farms to compost donated food scraps which generate fertilizer for soil which could reduce soil costs, a large portion of operating costs for many farmers.

Harper hopes to capitalize on these developments, having introduced a bill in February that would allow county or municipal governments to create urban agriculture zones (UAZ) in areas where produce is grown, livestock is raised, or at least seventy-five percent of food sold is locally grown.   

In a UAZ, the sales tax for goods sold in the zone are pooled into a fund which would help support health or farming related educational programs or provide short term loans to urban agriculture businesses. Organizations would also be protected from property tax increases in the next twenty-five years and subject to a reduction in water connection chargers.

Harper said the overarching idea behind the bill is to jumpstart local economies by incentivizing urban agriculture initiatives in food deserts. “When you have produce coming from three miles away versus three hundred miles away, that’s definitely impacting the local food economy because that’s money circulating locally versus money brought in from other markets,” said Nick Lucas, outreach coordinator at Advocates for Urban Agriculture.

Ideally, a portion of the UAZ’s pooled funds would be used to help get urban agriculture businesses off the ground as well. Lucas is excited about more for-profit farms being established on the South Side because even as a small-scale operation, a for-profit enterprise is self-sustaining—it wouldn’t be dependent on external funding or foundational support as a non-profit would. One such for-profit, Urban Canopy, is structured that way because it wants to show that a socially engaged business in urban agriculture can be successful in supporting the livelihoods of individuals and families, said outreach director Kelsey Schroeder.

These policy initiatives have come hand in hand with the recent expansion of urban agriculture in Chicago said Lucas. The Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project—an interactive map and database of community gardens and urban farms launched in 2010—now lists over nine hundred  total gardens and farms across the city. Thirteen of them belong to Windy City Harvest, an urban agriculture and jobs training initiative run by the Chicago Botanic Garden. It operates six farms on the South Side that grow about 75,000 pounds of fresh produce yearly, said Eliza Fournier, its director of youth programming. Each farm grows a different set of crops, everything from cilantro to turnips to collard greens, depending on the preferences of residents in the neighborhood where the farm is located.

The impacts of the farms are wide ranging, beyond simply providing fresh produce. Windy City Harvest also offers a youth development program at their Washington Park farm that employs teens to work on the farm for a summer, teaching valuable life lessons and developing skills to grow food, run a farm stand, and engage with the community through partnerships. Fournier said she’s seen a lot of program participants come back year after year, sharing what they’ve learned about healthy eating with family and friends.

“That’s the beauty of farming,” Fournier said. “It’s a phenomenal vehicle to teach and experience different topics like economic and youth development, environmental issues around food production and distribution, and social justice and equitable pay issues.”

Elsewhere in Woodlawn, Washington Park, and greater Englewood, overgrown lots are commonplace. To make use of these vacant lots, many residents and community organizations have transformed them into small community gardens through Large Lots, a city program launched in 2014 that allows community members to purchase city-owned vacant lots for $1. The Bronzeville Alliance Neighborhood Garden and the Dorchester Community Garden in Greater Grand Crossing are just two of the newly minted gardens in these lots purchased from the city.

A few of the vacant lots that were not transformed into gardens are now the sites of weekend farmers markets. Several markets in Englewood and Austin that sell fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhoods in food deserts are managed by Urban Canopy. “A lot of times we’re the only produce vendor for miles that offers fresh food that isn’t a corner store or a gas station where all the food is all prepackaged,” said Schroeder.

Urban Canopy brings local and organic produce grown at their farms and other Midwest farms to communities with low food access. Schroeder said that even though they would like to supply local produce first, a lot of people in low-access neighborhoods are simply hungry, and that Urban Canopy will bring in organic, non-local produce just so it can supplement residents’ access to fresh food. The long-term goal is to expand this model for farmers markets to more locations on the South and Southwest Sides, eventually handing over the markets to a local organization to let the neighborhoods shape how they want the market to be.

With all the local momentum around urban farms and gardens, Harper has high hopes for her UAZ bill, and thinks that the communities that it affects do too. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the main obstacles to the bill have not come from the Englewood community she represents. In Springfield, to pass statewide legislation brings its own host of problems, one of which is that “it is all about trying to paint an accurate picture of the real problem and debunking whatever stereotypical versions of Chicago…[the other representatives] may have,” according to Harper.

Recalling a committee session from earlier this year, Harper said a colleague told her he did not understand why she was proposing the UAZ bill in the first place; he simply did not think food deserts existed in Chicago, where there were corner stores on every street. Harper had to prove him wrong, sponsoring and passing House Bill 3157, which legally defined “food desert” and required the Illinois Department of Agriculture to identify and track geographical areas in the state that are food deserts.

“I always say that people like to highlight my community for the violence,” she said, “but I say the real crime that is going on there is the amount of people who are literally dying simply because they don’t have access to good food.”

Correction 10/4/17: A previous version of this story reported that Windy City Produce’s six farms grow around 25,000 pounds of fresh produce a year. They in fact grow around 75,000 pounds.

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