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Growing Home: An Urban Farm Providing Healthy Food and Opportunity

The term “food desert,” describing a marginalized community’s lack of access to fresh, nutritious and affordable food, makes Janelle St. John bristle. St. John is the executive director of Growing Home, located in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Growing Home is a non-profit, two-acre, urban farm serving its communities by providing paid employment training and local, affordable healthy food.

“A desert implies, nothing, as if there’s no end,” St. John said. “It just seems hopeless.”

Megan Morrison Cohort 3 2021

Growing Green's cohort of urban agriculture workers in Englewood.

Hopelessness is not what Growing Home is about. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Offering job training and employment to Chicagoans without homes, with criminal backgrounds, or those in recovery from substance abuse since 1996, Growing Home has flourished, selling 40,000 pounds of produce grown on its land every year.

The proceeds are funneled back into the organization to maintain operations, distribute fresh produce in Englewood at discounted rates and fill area food pantries.

Until recently, the bulk of Growing Home’s bounty - 80 percent of it - was sold at Chicago’s most popular farmer’s markets on the North Side, miles away from Englewood.

The remaining 20 percent was sold at a discount or distributed in Englewood, where nearly half of the residents live below the poverty line and one in five residents are unemployed.

As a major food producer, and Chicago’s first USDA-certified organic urban farm, Growing Home knew it possessed the resources and had a responsibility to help mitigate food insecurity in Englewood.

So, in 2019, Growing Home decided to sell or distribute at least 50 percent of their produce in Englewood.

Within a few months, the organization far exceeded that goal.

In the thick of the pandemic’s grip, 90 percent of Growing Home’s first two harvests were purchased and distributed in Englewood through local community-supported food drives, neighborhood events and a wholesale partnership with Catholic Charities.

To make the new distribution model sustainable, the organization worked with Chicago-area for-profit and non-profit food distributors to sell their produce at market rates. The profits from these sales supplemented the discounts offered specifically to neighborhood shoppers making the business model work.

In addition to providing affordable fresh produce to community residents, Growing Home’s continues to train individuals in need of work and offer its alumni ongoing career support.

Growing Home’s holistic focus is on nurturing the Englewood community nutritionally, educationally, and economically.

St. John is working on collaborating with other Englewood non-profits on shared goals to provide sustainable solutions for food security and other socio-economic challenges the community faces.

“It’s so important that we respect our community with fresh food options," she said. "Residents shouldn’t feel like they are getting old produce as seconds or thirds. Our community should know they are getting it first, right from where it's grown.”