Sunday, September 6, 2009

Local flavor

When they learned I would be heading through Chicago for a few days, a number of friends suggested that I check out City Farm. As I departed the Grant Park community garden on Friday morning, a couple of the Growing Power staff I'd been chatting with also urged me to check out the unusual space. So on Friday afternoon and for a good bit of Saturday, I did. Wow.

Ollie and I made our way down from where we were staying with friends in Lincoln Park to the relatively rundown Cabrini-Green neighborhood where the urban farm was located. (It's actually one of three sites, and the group is hoping to expand to acquire a few more plots through partnerships with the city as well as private institutions boasting unused green space.) Rows of tall tomato plants, lettuce beds, and trays of basil plants greeted Ollie and I upon our arrival, as did Dan, one of the farm's "three and a half" paid employees. As we strolled about the land which is just shy of an acre in size, Dan gathered some of the unfit-for-sale tomatoes for the compost pile and gave me a bit of background on the operation that brings in around $60K each year in produce sales -- enough to pay the aforementioned three and a half employees. The exceptional quality of the produce makes it appealing to local chefs. And the street cred the upscale restaurants enjoy by virtue of supporting local growers is evident in the way menus prominently feature the names of farms and local, seasonal ingredients. It's a win-win situation, and the first truly economically sustainable small-scale organic farm operation I have come across.

This does not mean that there isn't significant room for improvement in the system, I thought as I weeded radish beds with a few local volunteers on Saturday afternoon. What about supplying fresh produce to, say, the people who live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood? Can folks across the street from the farm afford $8 per pound for purslane (considered a weed by most rural farmers!) or $4.50 per pound for heirloom tomatoes? Dan admitted to a nagging feeling along these lines, a sense of food injustice. Sometimes the garden vittles are sold on a sliding scale, he told me, but we both felt there should be more.

It may not be ideal, but it's a start, and City Farm is constantly evolving. The 10-year-old program supports itself financially and offers opportunities to educate cityfolk about organic agriculture. City Farm is an outgrowth of The Resource Center, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that builds communities and fosters partnerships between the city's "haves" and its "have-nots." I later learned about the center's Perishable Food Recovery Program which brings together groups like Whole Foods and local food pantries and soup kitchens to minimize the amount of food that is wasted -- day-old bread, bruised fruit, slightly dented canned goods -- by efficiently redistributing it to places that will effectively use the food quickly. Very cool. (Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I seem to have a number of friends who are public defenders or in law school these days, and from hanging around these characters I suspect the reason such programs are not more widespread is due to fear of legal culpability that food recycling might elicit in our modern, lawsuit-happy society.) The Resource Center runs composting and industrial recycling programs, too. In fact, all of the equipment from the hoop houses (mobile mini greenhouses) to the fences to an old tractor trailer on the edge of the City Farm site are reclaimed (recycled) materials. Waste not, want not, truly.

As fate would have it, I happen to be staying with a group of friends that includes a local chef whose restaurant buys their produce from local farmers, and last night Derrick was telling me about the cafe's delectable menu that changes weekly based on what is locally available. This afternoon, a few of us made our way to the amazing Lula Cafe for brunch and feasted on an amazing array of seasonal goodies, including fried green tomato eggs florentine with mustard hollandaise (with heirloom tomatoes from City Farm), french toast with local peaches, and a watermelon and cantelope salad with fried feta, mint, and purslane (!). It was divine when washed down with a blackberry bellini (made with fresh berry compote). I don't eat out often these days, but I couldn't resist. I'm supporting the local economy, right?

Ollie and I are slated to move northward tomorrow morning, but Chicago has definitely caught our attention -- a major blip on the sustainable food radar. And now that I have at long last discovered a great salsa club as well, I may be back...indefinitely....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. ooh, provacative cliff hanger to end the post...

    I'm trying to figure how an operation that brings in $60K in produce sales, less operating expenses can cover 3.5 employees that can afford to live in Chicago? Hopefully, they can take home as much food from city farm as they can carry.


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