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Urban Growers Collective teaches divested communities how to grow, farm food locally

Urban Growers Collective teaches communities how to grow vegetables at several farms around the city.

Marshall Mitchell (from left), Malcolm Evans, Siobhan Beal and Laurell Sims of Urban Growers Collective, an organization that creates farms and gardens in the South and West Sides of Chicago, are photographed at their South Chicago neighborhood farm.
Marshall Mitchell (from left), Malcolm Evans, Siobhan Beal and Laurell Sims of Urban Growers Collective, an organization that creates farms and gardens in the South and West Sides of Chicago, are photographed at the collective’s South Chicago neighborhood farm.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Many of Chicago’s divested communities lack viable access to fruits and vegetables — and there’s an ongoing debate about which entity is to blame, according to a 2018 study detailing supermarkets and food access.

In the meantime, the folks at Urban Growers Collective are teaching those communities how to grow fruits and vegetables at several farms around the city.

Urban Growers’ co-founders, Erika Allen and Laurell Sims noticed discrepancies over time, prompting them to step in and assist communities branded as “food insecure.”

“I think we both approached it in very similar ways. [Allen] was doing art therapy and realized that the folks she was working with were having a really hard time focusing,” said Sims. “Even when doing art therapy, because [students] didn’t have food that they needed, the kids that she was working with were missing meals because their families couldn’t afford to have it on their table.

“And she was like: ‘Before we can really do this kind of therapeutic work, we really have to make sure folks are set a baseline to be able to transform our society.’ ”

Urban Growers operate eight “urban farms” across the city in neighborhoods such as South Chicago, Bridgeport, and Riverdale’s Altgeld Gardens and Phillip Murray Homes, a housing project long known for being a symbol for environmental racism nicknamed the “toxic doughnut,” according to a Chicago Sun-Times report.

Each site operates “production-oriented” farms where Urban Growers staff members offer educational opportunities for leadership development, training and food distribution. Each farm exposes communities — adults and teens — to organic growing methods, growing practices and year-round production strategies.

“I saw such a huge impact for [teens] being able to come out and be outside in a city is always something that we have limited access to,” said Sims. “I think also that teens in particular needs mentors, and mentorship is just such a powerful tool for guidance. ... There are a lot of kids raising kids, and so to be able to have really powerful folks in teenagers’ lives can be hugely transformative.

“Just having access to fresh fruits and vegetables through their jobs, they get to take produce to their families, but I think they are empowered to learn how to make really simple and easy meals healthier.”

Herbs and vegetables are planted on the farm of Urban Growers Collective.
Herbs and vegetables are grown on the farm of Urban Growers Collective in South Chicago.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Creating spaces for access to fresh fruits and vegetables has inspired others to join Urban Growers’ ranks in order to see how they can help.

Beverly native Marshall Mitchell, a farmer with Urban Growers Collective says he’s seen a stark difference when it comes to food insecurity in marginalized communities.

“For underserved communities — Black and Brown communities — there’s been a systematic disinvestment in numerous ways,” said Mitchell, who first came to Urban Growers as a volunteer. “And one of the biggest ways has been with the lack of healthy food, and just food in general. So, being a part of something that provides not just healthy food but teaches people how to grow their own shows that there are people that are willing to put in the work to provide that service.

“[Food] access has taken such a hit, and we’re really seeing how bad it actually is. … I think that it’s important to show people that this is something that they can do.”

, an organization that creates farms and gardens in the South and West Sides of Chicago,
Marshall Mitchell, farmer and volunteer coordinator at Urban Growers Collective, is photographed on the collective’s farm in the South Chicago neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sims, along with the rest of Urban Growers’ staff, sees how teens growing their own food has a positive impact on them.

“When kids start growing their own food, it totally changes the dynamic especially when we don’t have farmland around us,” said Sims. “And so our only interaction with food is grocery stores. We think that it magically gets there and so, for me, the ‘magic moment’ is when kids start pulling carrots out of the ground and they’re just like: ‘What? That grew out of the ground?’ To be able to see that reaction immediately — in a different way — shows we have a different relationship with food.”

NOTE: Upcoming events — at the South Chicago farm, 9000 S. Mackinaw Avenue, and virtual — hosted by Urban Growers Collective include their monthly “Seedling Sale,” which take place Saturdays in May from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.;“Building a Remedy Basket: An Herbal Grab-N-Go First Aid Kit,” 6-7:30 p.m. May 11 (online); Oyster Mushroom Production, 6-7:30 p.m. May 13 (online); and 1- 4 p.m. May 15 (South Chicago farm), among other workshops planned throughout the year. More information can be found here.