The Sitdown: Erika Allen uses urban gardening to plant seeds of hope
AS TOLD TO MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA ▲ staff reporter March 14, 2014 7:08PM
Updated: April 17, 2014 6:19AM
I grew up on a 120-acre farm, scary farming, with no off-farm labor, meaning there was no one coming in to do the farming, just me and my brother with my father. We grew spinach, greens, cabbage, okra, butter beans, turnips, mustards. At 18, I ran off to the Art Institute of Chicago. I wasn’t trying to farm for a living.
My first job out of art school was Gallery 37, when it was Block 37. From there, a lot of teaching artist gigs. I was always interested in community-based transformation through the arts. But I kept coming back to why aren’t these kids able to focus on painting? So I went to UIC for a master’s in art therapy. I was working for a social service agency on the West Side in 2001, running a food pantry, when I realized the people I was serving were so food insecure. I thought of my parents, who had a farm and a food system they controlled, and of my dad’s organization that was building community-operated food systems.
I was like, “Chicago needs a community-based food system.” Food is something that’s so nonthreatening, because everyone eats, right? It’s not polarizing. Who’s going to argue against making sure everyone has safe, equal access to food? It became a mission. To be able to take an empty lot, particularly in our communities labeled blighted or ghetto, and turn it into something beautiful and nourishing, I love it.
When we started in 2002, the Chicago Community Trust had just started funding food-related projects to tackle childhood obesity. Jim Slama’s “Fatal Harvest” book was fueling the organics movement. I was like, “Well, there’s a community garden in West Humboldt Park that’s gone to weeds. I’ll start there.” As we grew, it was like, “OK. I need lots.” Then it became “OK. I need land.”
One of the things I’ve learned in my 44 years is that if you’re around long enough and you are consistently doing things that manifest, crazy opportunities come. I was on this task force with someone from the Park District, and I was like, “Hey, why can’t we farm in Grant Park? You got all this land.” He was like, “Well, as a matter of fact you could.” We opened the first urban farm in Grant Park nine years ago.
We make bath salts and oils and art objects from the florals and herbs we grow. It’s all about, “Oh, there’s a lot I can do with this, and whatever I don’t sell, I can take home and eat.” Not everyone has to be a farmer, but if 1 in 100 of these kids gets the passion, we want them to know how to take a seed, plant it, harvest it, post-harvest handle it and sell it at farm stands.
We have about 13 acres all over the city, the largest, 2 1⁄2 acres at Altgeld Gardens. Our Iron Street Farm in Bridgeport is our flagship, an old warehouse, where we have goats, fish, bees, lots of worms. It’s open to the public. Our South Chicago Farm opens this spring — 7 acres on a 17-acre food and fitness park.
Getting to a place where we sold 30,000 pounds of carrots to Chicago Public Schools last year was huge. We have about 20 full-timers working for us, three-fourths came through our programs. I want to create opportunities for folks to go into their own business. Someone asked me, “Who’s your competition?” There is no competition. There’s not enough food being grown. If I can’t even grow enough for my own little markets I’ve created
. . . there’s huge opportunities.
People are really hungry to know about this stuff. I don’t have diabetes. I don’t have high blood pressure. I’m 44 years old, and I’m not skinny. But I eat this stuff a lot, and I’m active. It’s about people understanding that, and understanding they have control.