The burger places, fried chicken joints and corner-store carryouts in LaDonna Redmond’s West Side neighborhood are daily, visible signs of the high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease that plague her community.
“We have everything in terms of fast food, Taco Bell, Church’s, White Castle,” said Redmond as she drove along row after row of franchises. “But you can’t get a fresh tomato, at least not one you would want to eat.”
Complaints about poor-quality food and being gouged at midsize groceries and convenience stores resounds here and across the nation in inner-city communities that have watched major grocery chains leave for more affluent areas. But Redmond and her husband, Tracey, aren’t just complaining.
On three vacant lots behind their home, the Redmonds have installed two dozen raised garden plots to grow tomatoes, peppers and greens. In a place once overgrown with weeds, and littered with broken concrete and trash, they have created an inviting place where neighbors gather. “You’re planting those tomatoes too deep,” said one who stopped by to help.
In addition to the garden, the Redmonds have started a Saturday farmers market, where farmers sell fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables. And as a way to broaden access, they won government approval to accept electronic food stamp cards.
“It’s one of the first farmers markets available in low-income neighborhoods that sells the yuppie chow that you tend to associate with wealthier neighborhoods,” said Michael Marcus, a senior program officer at the Chicago Community Trust, which has provided $205,000 to the project. “What LaDonna has decided is that poor people deserve a shot at the same kind of food. This is a real breakthrough.”
The farmers market, and the gardening project, are part of an improvement plan for Chicago’s Austin community that envisions a year-round community grocery cooperative that would sell fresh meats and vegetables and offer cooking classes.
Others have taken notice. The Chicago Community Trust and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation have provided nearly $1 million in grants to the Chicago Community Food Security Roundtable, which is backing the Redmonds’ plans. The goal is to promote healthy living, move food production closer to the people who use it and transform urban decay into an economic development tool.
All over the country there are new urban farming projects raising fish, growing fruits and vegetables, and turning trash into compost in public housing projects, rooftop gardens and school greenhouses. It’s about more than food. In cities like Chicago, with tens of thousands of vacant lots, community gardening projects are also a way to reclaim property that had become a symbol of years, and sometimes decades, of neglect — and they could be potential moneymakers.
“Urban agriculture is an emerging trend in this area and across the nation,” said Rhonda Hardy, who promotes community and economic development at the University of Illinois Extension. “There are so many vacant lots in the city and all these people standing around with no jobs. We see this as a way to help the community grow.”
In Buffalo, a New Jersey-based company sold more than 7 million pounds of tomatoes grown on 35 acres of a former industrial site using hydroponics and greenhouses. In the Redmonds’ case, they have decided to grow organically, hoping to tap into the fast-growing industry that in 2001 took in an estimated $9 billion.
With 114,000 residents, the Austin neighborhood is Chicago’s largest. It has one full-service grocery store and several smaller grocery and convenience stores. Their offerings leave much to be desired, many residents say. Studies show that Austin residents last year spent $134 million on groceries, but only $34 million in their own neighborhood. And like most communities in the nation, what they did buy didn’t come from nearby.
“A tremendous amount of produce comes from over 1,000 miles away,” said Bill Shoemaker, senior research specialist in food crops at the University of Illinois. “This product is 7 to 10 days old. Whether it looks nice or not, there are some nutritional factors that have deteriorated. This is a way to change that.”
The Redmonds are all about change: Under a city program, they have acquired several vacant lots and begun planting vegetables and greens on their first site, just behind their home. They’re getting technical assistance from a consortium of universities headed by Loyola University.
“The food that people have easy access to does not seem to be very healthy,” said Chicago State University geography professor Danny Block, who is studying the variety and density of grocery stores and restaurants in the Austin neighborhood compared with the rest of the city. “We’re looking at how the distribution of groceries changes as the community became poorer and more African American, and also a survey of residents about food buying habits. How often they shop. What they buy. Where they buy it.”
This information is important to decisions about where to locate a community cooperative, and to provide data for policymakers who might be interested in correcting any inequities that are uncovered, Block said.
But while the academic work continues, the Redmonds are focusing on becoming farmers. There has been lots of sweat already, making compost, building the raised plots, getting advice from farmers and receiving tips from neighbors who — recalling their rural roots — have an idea about the way things ought to be done.
“This project is a little late in planning,” said Eloise Harvey, 73, as she watched from her porch next door as the project got underway. “Should have been in the ground three months ago.”
Still, she’s happy to see something done. The activity on the lot makes the drug dealers in the neighborhood nervous with people hanging around all the time. And it gives at least a few people in the community a chance to earn some money.
“Anything to make the neighborhood better,” said Harvey, who moved to the neighborhood in 1965. “When I moved into the neighborhood it was nice and peaceful. No gangs. No drugs.” But that changed over the years, particularly during the height of the crack epidemic, when there were gang killings on a regular basis.
“It’s still rough in this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s so bad that most people don’t even call the police.”
And while there are plants next door, a compost pile going, and people regularly out with garden utensils, it is difficult to forget it’s in an urban setting. Commuter trains roll noisily by on nearby raised train tracks, and planes fly overhead regularly.
Still, for Tracey Redmond, it’s a place to find peace. For 16 years, he was a senior commodity trader at Lind-Waldock. He wore a suit and shaved everyday. Now, he wears overalls and a beard.
“The job was making me sick,” he said. So he quit and now he’s a “farmer,” wearing overalls and spending his day tending his plants and supervising the neighbors who have signed on to work with him. Both he has his wife think they’re onto something.
Food has been nearly an obsession in the Redmond house since their son, Wade, was born four years ago. He had severe food allergies, forcing his parents to become quasi-experts on nutrition: where food comes from, the chemicals used to grow it, the best places to find fresh and organic food at a reasonable price.
They have turned that knowledge into a full-time job that they hope will change their community for the better. Both are clear about what they don’t want to be.
“We’re not trying to do social service,” said LaDonna Redmond. “Some [organizations] continue to perpetuate the stereotype that everyone is from a single-parent home. They look at this community as a place that has a lot of deficits. We want to build on community assets.”
© 2002 The Washington Post Company