Chicago urban farm collective provides network for food security, social justice

CHICAGO (WLS) -- At sites throughout the city, the women-owned farms of Urban Growers Collective are providing a vehicle for social justice and food security through urban farming and gardening.

"We farm and use farming as a way to create social change," said co-founder Erika Allen, who serves as CEO and Director of Operations.

The collective operates at seven full-time sites around the city, along with pop-up beautification spaces.

Their largest farm is in South Chicago, a large Park District plot located right along the lakefront's former industrial hub. Half of the space is used as an incubator for small local farmers, while the other half is farmed by Urban Growers Collective staff.

The collective's portion has goats, bees, medicinal herbs, vegetables, a fruit orchard, and more.

For Allen and her co-founder Laurell Sims, part of the collective's mission is to provide work opportunities and safe spaces for marginalized communities.

"Never knew that this was gonna be my passion. Never knew that I was gonna grow up to be a farmer," said farm manager Malcolm Evans. "Cause I grew up in Cabrini Green, and Cabrini Green ain't always been no safe place to be."

Cabrini Green, a now defunct and demolished public housing projects, was notorious for its violence and low quality of life.

When he was 10 years old growing up at the project, Evans found a safe place to learn and spend time at a new community garden that Allen was building on top of abandoned tennis and basketball courts.

"I remember the first couple of years, he didn't smile very much," Allen said. "But he came back every day. And, you know, one day he just came to me and said, 'I want to be a farmer.'"

Evans fell in love with farming immediately.

"I love to like grow things and then come back and see it produce. And then I'm harvesting. Now I'm taking to the farmers market. Then I'm selling it," said Evans, who smiles often now.

Urban Growers Collective provides opportunities for others to follow Evans's path. One partnership with CPS enables Chicago students to work at the farms over the summer and after school.

Another partnership with Heartland Alliance and the mayor's office opened up 50 vacant lots in the city for beautification. That work is being done in partnership with formerly incarcerated individuals.

"This work is important, it's beautiful. It's kind of taking on a bigger momentum, especially with climate change," Allen said.

"People are thinking more about where their food comes from and how they can play an active role in that. I think for the most marginalized communities, this can become a pathway to a better life."
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