Urban farms provide homeless, ex-offenders with employment

As part of a movement toward sustainable urban farming, nonprofit, organic farms in Chicago and Evanston provide communities with fresh produce while training the homeless and ex-offenders in agribusiness.

Growing Home, Inc., a Chicago-based nonprofit, was founded in 1992 to break the cycle of homelessness by offering transitional employment in the form of paid internships for the recently incarcerated or chronically unemployed. The program places interns in one of their three organic farms, one in Marseilles, Ill., and the other two in the low-income, neighborhoods of Englewood and New City on Chicago’s South Side. Interns are trained in the agriculture business, farming and delivering produce while being given lessons in résumé building and interviewing skills so they are more likely to find better employment upon graduation.

Jasmine Easter had been in and out of jobs for several years before being accepted into Growing Home’s gateway program, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning video. She said Growing Home was the leg up she needed to find her way out of unemployment and that it provided her with the skills needed to best apply her strengths to the workforce.

“They gave us a chance to show who we are and not who we once (were),” Easter said in the video. She performed so well she was hired by Growing Home and later became team leader of another nonprofit where she trains low-income women in spa product and soap production.

Seventy percent of Growing Home interns go on to find employment or continuing education after graduating, and less than five percent of graduates who were former inmates return to prison.

“Everyone needs access to both employment and decent food,” said Barbara Wallace, a Growing Home board member.

Wallace said the social enterprise works not only to develop interns for gainful employment, but also to promote community growth and healthful diets in areas that otherwise would not have access to fresh produce, or food deserts. The fruits and vegetables grown at the farms are sold in local farmers’ markets or to top restaurants across the city and all profits go directly back into improving the organization.

Englewood is classified as a food desert, where residents have little access to fresh groceries and many struggle to find work. The Englewood Growing Home farm thus provides a way to break both the cycles of poor nutrition and high unemployment. Visitors were invited to observe the program in action at an open house Sunday.

“It’s just really great and inspiring,” Wallace said, adding that the program has an excellent relationship with the city in terms of grants and support.

A similar program based in Evanston is gaining ground, having recently purchased a couple of new lots for farmland on the city’s west side and having captured nuCuisine’s attention.

The idea for New Leaf Urban Gardens, an Evanston Community Development Corp. agribusiness initiative, was derived from Growing Farms. Originally organized by several African-American churches, New Leaf’s purpose is to provide young ex-offenders with entrepreneurial experience.

“Some of these kids spent time in prison for minor drug-related offenses,” ECDC board member Ron Fleckman said. “It’s kind of a forgotten group. Most have not had high school degrees. We work with them to try and get their records expunged and give them the advantage for these guys to get a decent job.”

For the last two years, New Leaf members have been selling fruits and vegetables at local fresh markets and providing senior living complexes with fresh produce.

At Philfest on May 14, Fleckman introduced the program to John Krickl, Sodexo, Inc.’s district executive chef.

Krickl decided to work with New Leaf to supply nuCuisine with more local-grown produce.

“It was one of those rare instances where the stars lined up together,” Fleckman said.

NuCuisine regularly purchases food from local venders when summer crops are available. Krickl said nuCuisine and New Leaf have unofficially set up a partnership to do business in the future.

“The program provides food grown by less advantaged people. (We) will purchase that produce and serve it on campus,” Krickl said. “It’s a good thing that gets people to learn a trade and be productive.”

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