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Allencia Pittman (left) spends the  morning harvesting 30 pounds of spinach with a co-worker at the Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood.

Harvesting hope: Englewood’s urban farm hires ex-offenders

by Alan Yu
Dec 04, 2012



Allencia Pittman has been working at Growing Home's urban farm in Englewood for 10 months.



Allenica Pittman harvests spinach and other produce to sell at a green market in Lincoln Park as well as to Chicago restaurants.



The Growing Home farm in Englewood grows mostly greens because they sell for a good price.

Most trees in Chicago have lost their leaves by now, but Allencia Pittman is busy harvesting spinach with her fellow workers in the greenhouse of an urban farm. She tastes a fresh leaf larger than her hand.

“I never really ate vegetables in the past, and if I did, they were out of a can,” Pittman said. “Now I have the utmost respect for plant life and eat great organic vegetables.”

Just over a year ago, she said she had trouble finding work because she was a convicted felon just out of prison. But Growing Home, an urban agriculture nonprofit that operates the farm in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago and provides jobs and job training to ex-offenders, gave her a chance.

“Growing Home was the only (company) that actually hired me since I’d been released from my incarceration, and it was places like Growing Home that gave me hope,” Pittman said. “Growing Home didn’t just see me as a felon or didn’t judge me simply based on my past.”

On a chilly fall morning, Pittman is busy harvesting spinach with co-workers. Surrounded by the fresh produce and heat inside the greenhouse, it feels like the spring rather than a Chicago winter.

Locally grown solutions?

Programs such as urban farms and community gardens can create jobs, provide fresh produce in a food desert and bring neighbors together, said Sonya Harper, a resident and the outreach manager at Growing Home, citing her own experiences of starting a garden among her neighbors and telling residents about Growing Home. A proposed city plan calls for 100 acres of farms in the neighborhood.

“When you live in a community like mine, low-income, that is most known for things such as crime, people are always expecting the negative,” she said. “But once I’m able to talk to the neighbors and explain that we’re a nonprofit here to give jobs to people that really need them and get food, they fall in love with the organization.”

Growing Home could also help another group — Englewood’s large population of ex-offenders. The ex-offenders aren't to blame for Englewoods’ problems, but Growing Home’s job training program hires 40 of them a year to give them paid work on local farms, train them for future jobs to get them back on their feet, Harper said.

The program has become increasingly successful since Growing Home started the first Englewood farm on 5814 S. Wood St. in 2005. The farm sold more than 11,000 pounds of produce in 2010 alone, and Harper estimates the 2012 figure will exceed 13,000 pounds.

Crops that grow anywhere, anytime

Urban farm manager Tim Murakami and the other farm staff grow the crops in unheated greenhouses called hoophouses. Add in 18 inches of compost to act as soil, and they end up with organic vegetables sprouting even during a Chicago winter. They reuse some of the produce they can't sell for the compost, so nothing is wasted. The Wood Street farm occupies a former vacant lot with cracked concrete, so the staff built the hoophouses and layered compost on top. They grow greens such as spinach, arugula and kale during the winter, and add tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and other vegetables during the summer. Their greens sell for $10 a pound at a green market in Lincoln Park, as well as a stand at the farm during the summer.

Farming for the future

Since the interns receive job training through an actual job, that is the best preparation for future employment, Murakami said.

‘We’re an actual business, and producing a product that has to be sold. I think that makes our program effective,” Murakami said. “The hope is that through their time here they get the experience of being held to real world standards.”

After 10 months of farm work and job training at Growing Home, Pittman said she watched her fellow interns practice job interviews with their new resumes. They came to the farm without knowing anything about writing a resume, she said.

“After practicing that for so many weeks, they become much more confident in what they’ve been doing,” Pittman said. “Growing Home didn’t just see me as a felon or judge me simply based on my past. They also gave me hope even though there aren’t many other companies out there that are willing to hire someone like me.”

Ripe for growth

Growing Home expanded to another former vacant lot across Honore Street last year, and that farm just began production this year. More of Englewood’s vacant land could become local community farms, if the Green Healthy Neighborhoods (GHN) plan developed by the City of Chicago, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and local community groups, is implemented.

Chicago’s Planning Commission will consider the suggestions early next year. GHN is part of CMAP’s larger regional strategy to help seven counties in the Chicagoland area find their own ways to live more sustainably and boost the local economy. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds the plan with a $4.25 million grant.

The plan in Englewood would create a 100-acre urban agriculture district, as well as introduce retail, housing and manufacturing, said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development. The organizers hope to use Englewood’s 11 thousand vacant lots to develop urban farms and other productive uses, so businesses and shoppers will return to stimulate the local economy and stop the mass exodus of residents, Strazzabosco said.

“The city has a long history of trying to revitalize the Englewood community with mixed results,” he said. “This one focuses on what is there today for the residents that are there today, unlike a typical urban renewal effort which is about creating new projects for new residents.”

A collaboration involving varied groups - from a regional planning agency down to local community groups - is unprecedented in Englewood, said Demond Drummer, an organizer at Teamwork Englewood, one of the community groups involved.

Though all parties are new to the process, Drummer said they hope the plan can successfully revive Englewood to be almost as vibrant as it was in the Jazz Age 1920s, when it offered the city's second largest retail location beyond downtown Chicago. Now, it has the fifth highest homicide rate in town and the third highest poverty rate.

How Englewood got its high crime and poverty rate

“Englewood is bounded by a highway (the Dan Ryan Expressway) to the east, railroads to the other sides, and for that reason it was called Junction Grove,” Drummer said. “This was one of the reasons why Englewood was one of the major retail locations in Chicago because in addition to CTA, the bus, taxis, you had Metra and everywhere from the Metra tracks to (South) Morgan (street), there were lounges and movie theatres and stores and department stores.”

The fall of real estate values and redlining in the 1940s made Englewood a low-income area, and most investment and businesses left, leaving the lots vacant. The problem persists to this day, and hopefully the establishment of successful local businesses such as urban agriculture will provide jobs and revitalize the community, said Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. As businesses left, so did most landlords, leaving their buildings to deteriorate.

“I’m a landlord myself, and not many live and stay in the community,” Butler said. “Many just took advantage of the market, and so they basically buy it and then they leave and don’t really take ownership of those properties.”

Beyond the farm

Although most say Growing Home is already benefitting Englewood, the GHN plan is about more than urban farming. Community farming is just one of many proposed measures, said Strazzabosco of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development. Another is to build an industrial railyard to use some of the vacant land for factories, he said.

The Green Healthy Neighborhoods organizers stress that the farm expansion and other plans cannot succeed without input from residents and local groups leading the efforts. For one thing, residents find it much easier to listen to fellow residents, said Harper of Growing Home.

“When I tell people (about Growing Home), the first thing that’s out of my mouth is ‘I live two blocks down the street,’” she said. “Once they hear that, I’ve got their attention and it’s easier for me to deliver my message.”

Ultimately, the plan is to help residents revitalize their home, said Jason Navota, a principal at CMAP who works on the plan.

“They won’t understand why a guy dressed in a suit or whatever is in their community,” Navota said. “The ultimate goal is to facilitate the process for these communities to create their own vision. By helping each community do that, we help the entire region do that.”