December 16, 2019

Windy City Harvest cultivates produce and healthy opportunities for kids across the Chicago area

The Chicago Botanic Garden's urban agriculture initiative is providing jobs-training programs and bringing fresh food to the community.

Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture initiative, first started in 2003 as a green youth farm with 15 teenagers and an acre of land. Today, it’s a thriving urban agriculture program with 15 farms across the Chicago area that have brought more than 180,000 pounds of fresh produce into the community, including a variety of greens, tomatoes, onions, beets, turnips, radishes, and peppers.

Half of that produce was distributed on Chicago’s South and West Sides this year through a few different channels, including community markets, a retail stand at one of their farm locations, and the Veggie RX program, which is a collaboration with local health centers where people are officially prescribed fresh vegetables to help keep them healthy. Windy City Harvest also boasts a hydroponics facility that produces 1,200 heads of red and green lettuce each week. The program is supported in part by Allstate, which is headquartered in the Chicago area.

In addition to growing fresh food for Chicago residents, Windy City Harvest helps to grow the careers of more than 200 people across the Chicago area every year with its youth programs, transitional jobs, and workforce development programming. The program boasts a higher than 80 percent placement rate in food systems jobs, post-training.

“You can come to our doors because you need a job, but there’s really a lot of opportunity to further that training and experience if that’s what you’re interested in,” said Youth Farm Manager Kate Gannon.

That’s what happened for Natasha Coleman, who started in 2013 at the Washington Park Youth Farm, and now works as the Rodeo Farm coordinator, overseeing a team and training people transitioning into the workforce on how to handle chemicals and use farm tools, and how to harvest food. But in addition to the physical training, Coleman works with trainees on improving their resumes and conducting mock interviews with them to get them ready for their career path.

A young high school student when she first joined, Coleman was inspired to learn about farming after watching her older sister Sandra go through the program.

“I would love to see more youth taking action with how their food is being raised and grown. I would love to see every block have a garden growing.”

A tomboy growing up, Coleman jumped at the chance to shadow her older sister. “‘You’re coming home dirty and you’re getting paid to do it, but when I used to come home dirty I’d get in trouble!,” Coleman recalled telling her sister. “I spent the entire day with her working and that was the first time I saw a carrot being pulled out of the ground and right then I got attached to it.”

Coleman says that the most essential skill she gained from joining the program is public speaking, which she now uses daily to guide job trainees and introduce people new to the Windy City Harvest mission and the farming experience.

Even though she spends a lot of her time training, she says that she still has an opportunity to get into the dirt. “That’s what I love,” said Coleman. “I love the hands-on experience touching the earth.”

Coleman hopes that other people can also have a similar experience as her. “I would love to see more youth taking action with how their food is being raised and grown,” Coleman said. “I would love to see every block have a garden growing.”

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.