Growing Community through Urban Farming in Englewood

by Harry Rhodes, Executive Director, Growing Home Inc.
Growing Home

Growing Home, Chicago’s only certified organic production farm located in Englewood, believes that urban farms and food enterprises can be at the heart of community revitalization for the neighborhood.

Chicago is a city with huge disparities among its neighborhoods. There are many wealthy communities with excellent schools and amenities for its residents. Then there are others, such as Greater Englewood, with poverty rates above 50% and very little investment in its residents. The future of Chicago depends on the success of all its communities and on breaking down these disparities.

Our organization Growing Home, which works towards those successes, has found many partners in Englewood who believe in creating an atmosphere for positive community development. We aim to change lives through urban farming. We operate the city of Chicago’s only certified organic production farm – in Englewood – and use it to provide people with barriers to employment with a real, hands-on job experience. We give people a chance to become their best selves, to land good jobs, and to start fulfilling their dreams.

The people we invest in have been marginalized. In fact, most have a criminal background. We know that when people leave prison and try to get a job, they often have doors closed in their faces. Thus our criminal justice system becomes a revolving door. At Growing Home, we are changing this cycle by giving people a transitional job for 14 weeks that leads to permanent employment. Most of our program graduates – about 90% – get a good job, start paying taxes, and do not go back to prison. This is not only good for those individuals, this is good for all Chicago communities.

We’ve been working with partners to develop a healthy food district in Englewood, transforming the community from a “food desert” to a “food destination.” We believe that urban farms and food enterprises can be at the heart of community revitalization. When we began working in Englewood in 2006, we were the first urban farm and the first food enterprise to open up in the community, where there was almost no access to healthy food. We have worked in this community for 10 years and can see positive change happening. Today there are three more farms, a plan for many more farms, new community gardens, a sit-down restaurant, a cafe, and a new Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Starbucks. This positive turnaround in Englewood is being spurred on by the development of this healthy food district. Hundreds of jobs have been created, but the community is hungry for more. One of the best ways to support this revitalization is to invest in these efforts that are churning out new opportunities for Englewood residents. And with this, Growing Home has ambitious goals for scaling up its work over the next 5 years.

We’ve worked with the Field Foundation since 2004 when we were just a startup organization with one central farm in Marseilles, Illinois. Two years later, when we began working in Englewood, the foundation awarded us a capital grant to support the development of our farm and training center. This was a crucial step in the development of our organization, and we would not have been able to succeed and grow without that support. The Field Foundation saw potential in our work and took a chance. We were a risky project with no proven track record. Other foundations said “sounds good, but where’s the proof?” We felt that the Field Foundation heard our message and believed in the idea. They championed our work. One program officer even visited all of our farms, including the one in Marseilles, which is 75 miles outside of Chicago. We’ve been able to leverage the Field Foundation’s support to attract other funders too. Their partnership has helped to legitimize Growing Home in the funding community.

Support from the Field Foundation has helped us expand our training program from nine people in its first year to 50 people in 2016. Not all foundations are willing to take a chance on a startup organization and stick with them as they grow over the years. The support of the foundation has helped positively impact the lives of nearly 400 Chicagoans and their families. This is not a one-sided relationship of give and take. Rather, it is a partnership where we are working together to promote common goals. The Field’s work supporting us and other Chicagoans throughout the city has increased the quality of life for our city.

In workforce development there is general consensus that the traditional workforce system, which relied on 30 days of job readiness training and then finding someone a job, is not working. In order to break the cycle of poverty, incarceration, and unemployment, a more holistic, intensive approach is needed. Transitional jobs, which give people with barriers to employment a real job experience, has proven to be a successful approach. This type of program is more expensive per participant that the traditional approach, but it saves money in the long run because more people get good jobs and keep those jobs. For foundations to support transitional jobs means a serious investment in the future.

Living proof of the success of our program is DeAndre Brooks, who started working at Growing Home in 2012.

“I entered the program because they provide several services such as landscape training, a cooking class at Kennedy King college, customer service skills, food handlers certification, and background expungement. What drew my attention to Growing Home was my passion for food, and the connection has been there ever since."

DeAndre was hired as a Production Assistant and while working through the program his passion for food rolled over into farming. He developed a lot of leadership skills and his manager hired him on as a full time crew leader. Today, DeAndre is the Assistant Site Manager, where he truly loves helping the production assistants gain new and different transferable skills so they can move on to full time employment.

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© 2016 Field Foundation
All photos by Olga Lopez