The pandemic radically changed the way we talk about, think about, and interact with food. For the privileged, that meant cooking more than ever before, learning how to meal plan, or baking bread for the first time. But for many others who were already experiencing economic insecurity or experiencing it for the first time because of unemployment, it likely meant facing hunger, and relying on neighborhood mutual aid systems, community fridges, and urban farming projects for support.
One of those urban farming projects is Urban Growers Collective, a Chicago non-profit organization that builds farms in the city, provides fresh produce to underprivileged areas in the West and South Side, and offers training programs to educate and foster employment opportunities in the food world—all in an effort to build a more sustainable, community-based food system.
Laurell Sims is the co-founder and CEO of Urban Growers Collective. We spoke last week amid a “weeding frenzy” at the farms after a rainy period in Chicago. We talked about how racism has shaped our food system, how the non-profit pivoted during the pandemic, and how public policy has to evolve to really change the system long-term. To see more of their work, follow Urban Growers collective on Instagram.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Urban Growers Collective start and how would you describe your work?
Our crew has worked together for a really long time. We all worked together at [co-founder] Erika Allen’s father’s organization, Growing Power, and when Growing Power closed in 2017, we decided to open up Urban Growers Collective as a team. And we really felt like the training program was our path. We were really passionate about getting folks in agriculture and creating community spaces where people could really have dynamic programming—anything from art-based programming with murals and beautification to creating products like tinctures. We have a lot of different avenues for employment and really look at the whole food system, which is the largest employer in the world. And so with the training program, we want people to be able to see how they fit into the food system and see that there are so many different opportunities for employment within the food system. We wanted to create spaces that grew a lot of food so we could make a dent in the food insecurity problem in Chicago, but also create these really beautiful dynamic urban farms that serve as healing spaces of community, of green space, and as a place where folks can really feel nourished.
I think conversations around food injustice and equitable food systems have been growing across the country over the last 15 month or so, but what are the specific issues facing Chicago and why is there a need for something like Urban Growers Collective there?
The reason is systemic racism. These are communities that have not been invested in, and have actually been divested in for the last 100 to 150 years. This is not an issue that we are going to be able to solve, but we can definitely help alleviate it. The solution really comes from having collectively-owned and community-based investment so that folks have jobs in the neighborhoods that they live in and that that investment stays within the neighborhood. I think for us, especially with COVID, we’ve definitely seen that having community-based farms—a place where folks can have community gardens, and can learn how to grow food and buy food—is a huge advantage. We saw across the country that grocery stores were picked clean in this emergency. So food security really starts by growing your own food in the neighborhood you live in, and then keeping that food in the neighborhood.
What has the last year been like for you guys? How have things shifted and how have you had to adapt to the pandemic?
We’re really fortunate to be working with other organizations, and there is a crew of us that we call “the squad” that pretty much activated as soon as things shut down. For us, we have this Fresh Moves Mobile Market that’s been operating with us for six years and we had to shut it down because everything in the city shut down. So instead of having the bus go to the partner organizations we work with—we work with like 15 different community organizations that are schools, community centers, health centers—we instead packed boxes. And so we would take those boxes and drop them off so that we could have no contact pick up. We did that and expanded that throughout the summer months last year. By the time November hit, we had distributed about 37,000 boxes and like 1.5 million pounds of food.
We came together and worked with a couple of wholesalers and then took produce from the farm and made combination boxes. They were really beautifully curated so that folks had access to fruits and vegetables that we didn’t necessarily grow with the farm, in addition to the farm produce. We did weekly distributions through November and then starting in November, with a little more information about COVID, we reactivated the bus. And instead of having the boxes, we gave everybody $10 in vouchers so they could pick their own produce. That really is the ideal for us. Even though we can curate these nice boxes, it’s not necessarily what everybody wants, you know? And so having choice was such a huge incentive to eat that produce. And so folks would come to the bus and then they could pre-order and we would pack the bags just on the spot. And we’ve been doing that since November 1st and that’s continued throughout 2021.