Education in the Desert

If you're lucky, you're not one of the 23.5 million Americans living in a "food desert." Food deserts are urban and rural areas that lack access to grocery stores.
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Imagine you're Ramon. You're nine. You're a little bit of a geek; you'd rather spend your weekend reading Harry Potter than shooting hoops. You live on Chicago's South Side with your Mom and Dad, your Grandma, and your hamster Lucille. Like Lucille, you're slightly chubby.

Luckily, you are involved in an after school-cooking class run by Common Threads at your school. Every Monday, you and other kids learn how to make a dinner for your family using five ingredients you can buy for under $10. Many are ingredients you can find in a convenience store. This is awesome because sometimes your Grandma can't go shopping at a real market. She likes to go on Saturdays with Aunt Rosa, but if Rosa can't borrow a car, they have no way to get there. Then Grandma has to get creative with ingredients from the Quick Mart.

Now you and Grandma take turns cooking dinner. Mom calls you the "stove wizard"; Dad loves your Three-Bean Rice and your Sweet and Sour Slaw. And Grandma says that even though you're getting slimmer from these healthy recipes, she's still going to squeeze your cheeks in her two hands and smooch all over them until you yell.

Okay, you're not Ramon anymore. You're just yourself, and if you're lucky, you're not one of the 23.5 million Americans living in a "food desert." Food deserts are urban and rural areas that lack access to grocery stores. They're one of the blights addressed by "Let's Move," the major campaign against childhood obesity launched in 2010 by Michelle Obama.

Chicago is taking a lead in addressing food deserts. I was honored this week to be included in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Food Access Summit lunch, where national food activists and policy makers met to share strategies for improving access to good nutrition in urban areas. I am so grateful that Mayor Emanuel has prioritized the issue and is demonstrating real leadership in the area of food access. The guest list included Sam Kass, White House Senior Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives -- another true leader in the crusade to increase our nation's health -- alongside mayors from eight U.S. cities that have been successful in making better food more available to inner city residents.

During the meal, I was really excited to hear from my fellow guests about the incredible work they are doing in the urban agriculture movement. One enormous first step is to revise zoning laws, allowing city farms and making it easier for people to sell locally-grown produce. Chicago's city council enacted this measure last month. Under the new ordinance, urban gardens can be as large as 25,000 square feet. Hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient-enriched water without soil) and aquaponics (raising fish among hydroponic plants) are also now allowed in the city.

Once zoning opens up options for urban farming, all sorts of great possibilities arise. At its most basic, urban farming can be as simple as "adopting" a vacant lot and getting out your rake. The dynamic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore explained that under her aegis, Baltimore has developed a simple process that allows residents to select a vacant city space and apply online to care for it. The website even includes a resource sheet on how to convert a vacant lot into a garden.

Erika Allen, who runs the Iron Street Urban Farm, also spoke at the lunch. Located in what was once a truck depot, Iron Street Farm is one of five sites in Chicago developed by Growing Power, a truly inspirational organization whose mission is to transform city eating habits by building what it calls "Community Food Systems". Founder Will Allen, Erika's father, is a sharecropper's son who went through several professional transformations before turning to farming. Recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award, his mantra is "if people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level of a community." Erika pointed out that in Chicago, Growing Power's initiatives depend on the kind of forward-looking zoning laws just passed by the city.

Another fascinating urban agriculture project is the vertical farming promoted by The Plant, a former Chicago meatpacking facility that has been repurposed as a growing space and "food business incubator". John Edel from The Plant attended the lunch to discuss vertical farming and the importance of urban building re-use.

Vertical farming -- huh? I couldn't quite imagine how effective an up-and-down space could be for crops until I saw it. Monocle recently created a video featuring The Plant and if, like me, you need visuals, you'll find it fascinating.

Repurposing urban space is also key to Sweet Water Organics, a Milwaukee company that began aquaponic farming in 2008. Executive Director Emmanuel Pratt talked about the process of raising fish and vegetables in a one-time crane factory that's been reconfigured into a city "wetland" where leaf vegetables and herbs grow alongside perch and tilapia. The farm now raises over 50,000 fish in a recirculating system where fish waste fertilizes the plants while the plants filter the water.

I'm trying to imagine this on a smaller scale at home with a backyard koi pond and some swiss chard... and there's a useful site on urban home gardens and aquaponics at But if this seems a little too complicated, Sweet Water takes wholesale orders. What better way to support their work than to ask your local grocery store (if, of course, you're lucky enough have a local grocery) to stock foods from Sweetwater or another organic grower in your area?

Harry Rhodes, Executive Director of Chicago's Growing Home, also attended the lunch with information about his organization's social mission. Growing Home's objective is to use organic agriculture as vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. In 2011, for example, 35 otherwise "hard to employ" men and women gained hands-on experience in organic farming. In the process, they grew and sold over 11,000 pounds of produce. GH also holds a weekly farm stand in Englewood, and it recently began a community supported agriculture program in which Englewood residents can buy in to receive a box of organic vegetables for just $5 per week.

What if you can't get to the produce? In some cities it will come to you! A Somerville, Massachusetts project to combat food deserts involves a Mobile Farmer's Market. The Market -- a bus stocked with farm-fresh goods from outside the city -- offers housing development residents food at prices comparable to a grocery store. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone was at the lunch to represent his city, whose "Shape Up" program was a model for Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move."

On the other end of the spectrum, local initiatives like these are supported by national corporations. Getting companies like SUPERVALU, Walmart, and Shoprite to commit to opening stores in food desert areas is crucial. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Marianos, Whole Foods: we need them all at the table if we're going to succeed.

A final problem, though, is that we are now into a third generation of Americans who have never cooked a meal for themselves. People don't automatically know what to do with wholesome food once they have access to it. What can you do with ten pounds of dry beans, even if they are on sale? Education is key. A few years back, Common Threads piloted a Market Box program in partnership with the Wholesome Wave Foundation, Growing Power, and the 61st Street Farmers Market in Chicago's Englewood community. It seemed like an unbeatable plan: we offered parents at Nicholson Elementary School the opportunity to purchase a box of sustainable, organic fruits and vegetables for just $14 with their Link cards. The large boxes, which usually cost $28, held enough to feed up to four people for an entire week! Sadly, the initiative stalled. Why? It turned out that families were hesitant to invest in produce; they were afraid of the "mystery produce" they might find, not knowing what to do with it. We included recipes in the boxes, and sent our team and students to the market each week for demonstrations. Our efforts made a small difference but not enough to save the program. So, access to food is key but we can't underestimate the importance of knowing how to cook.

As cities like Chicago see a big boost in grocery stores, I'm hopeful that we can commit to ensuring that there's also a place for learning in that scheme. Cooking demonstrations, nutrition workshops, and classes to make healthy food preparation fun for kids could be a centerpiece of new store openings. When SUPERVALU opens up around the corner from Ramon's apartment, let's be sure he's not the only kid in the neighborhood who knows how to make a meal.

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