Interview by Michelle DiMuzio, Slow Food Editorial Intern
Photos by Chelsea Huson + Urban Growers Collective
Slow Food Chicago (SFC) has been partnering with Urban Growers Collective (UGC), a non-profit urban agriculture organization in Chicago. I had the chance to chat with Laurell Sims, the Co-Founder and CEO – Finance at UGC and Meag Sargent, Food Justice & Policy Co-Chair, and Communications Co-Chair for SFC about their initiatives and more. Meag also works at UGC as the Administrative Coordinator and Bookkeeper.
Can you tell me about the mission for Urban Growers Collective and Slow Food Chicago?
UGC: Urban Growers Collective is a Black- and women-led non-profit farm in Chicago, Illinois working to build a more just and equitable local food system. We aim to address the inequities and structural racism that exist in the food system and in communities of color. Rooted in growing food, our mission is to cultivate nourishing environments which support health, economic development, healing, and creativity through urban agriculture.
We provide hands-on job training and create economic opportunity for youth, beginner BIPOC farmers, and men who are at high risk for gun violence. Our aim is to provide jobs while working to mitigate food insecurity and limited access to affordable, culturally-affirming, and nutritionally-dense food.
SFC: Slow Food Chicago is a volunteer-run and member-supported non-profit focused on education, advocacy, and creating a local food system that is good, clean, and fair for all Chicagoans. It’s one of the largest chapters of Slow Food USA with more than 500 active members and 6,000 supporters. Through our events, programs, and communications, we advocate for renewed interest in and support for our local food culture, racial equity within the Chicago food system, protecting endangered heirloom and heritage foods, and biodiverse and sustainable farming practices.
What initiatives are Slow Food Chicago and Urban Growers Collective currently working on?
UGC: For those involved in fixing our food system, we know the pandemic has just shed light on problems that have plagued the food system since its inception. 2020 revealed the systemic instabilities within our systems, institutions, and communities, and for Urban Growers Collective, it solidified the importance of our work and clarified our role in the food system and our communities. In 2020, Slow Food Chicago fundraised to support Urban Growers Collective’s Emergency Food Relief efforts. Through this and other funding, UGC was able to distribute more that 1.5 million pounds of food and over 19,000 hot meals to neighbors in need. To help address food insecurity, Urban Growers Collective will continue to reach neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic through the Fresh Moves Mobile Market. Fresh Moves is a bus that has been converted into a mobile farmers’ market. The “produce aisle on wheels” works toward closing the ‘food access gap’ by bringing produce to schools, community centers, churches, and health clinics — places that folks already frequent — to make good food accessible in Black and Brown neighborhoods that have been historically divested. Customers board the bus and shop for delicious local fruit, vegetables and grocery staples. The produce is priced to be affordable for all and to provide a fair return for the farmers and makers. Throughout most of 2021, Urban Growers Collective has provided a $10 voucher to buy produce for all of its customers, as well as matching Link up to $25 dollars through funding from LinkUp Illinois.
SFC: Slow Food Chicago is currently working on the following initiatives:
Snail of Approval – Snail of Approval is a campaign designed to honor food businesses that exemplify the principles of Slow Food – Good, Clean and Fair – and contribute to the quality, authenticity, and sustainability of food in our community. It recognizes restaurants and cafes, caterers and food service, food trucks, underground supper clubs, organic and natural farmers, artisans and producers, bars, vineyards and breweries, purveyors and markets, and other horticultural businesses that are making a positive impact on our local food system.
EIJ & food policy – We are reexamining our equity, inclusion, and justice initiatives from June 2020 to evaluate where we have made progress and where we still have work to do. We’ll be releasing a new list of equity, inclusion, and justice goals in June of 2021. We’re working to include more food justice and policy in all of our events, programs, and communications and hope to serve as an educational resource for Chicagoans interested in supporting a more just and equitable local food system.
Annual Tomato Seedling Sale – One of our annual fundraisers, our tomato seedling sale takes place every Memorial Day weekend. We sell unique heirloom and Ark of Taste varieties that are not commonly available at most nurseries. This year, we’re excited to be donating tomato seedlings to SkyART, the only free, openly accessible art center in Chicago that offers a broad range of visual art programs to young people ages 5-24.
PreSERVE garden, Ark of Taste, & Love Fridge donations – The preSERVE garden was created in 2010 out of a desire to get more deeply involved in community gardening at a neighborhood level and has continued to expand ever since. The garden is home to fruit trees and bushes; composting; and an ever-expanding diversity of crops like sweet potatoes, black eyed peas, greens, and heirloom tomatoes. Many of the varieties grown in the preSERVE Garden are part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste initiative, an international catalog of endangered and rare foods. Produce grown at the preSERVE garden is donated to the nearby Love Fridge at Stone Temple Baptist Church. The Love Fridge is a Chicago mutual aid group that places community refrigerators across the city, providing neighbors the opportunity to donate food as well as take any food they need.
What is the partnership between Slow Food Chicago and Urban Growers Collective?
UGC + SFC: Two of UGC’s staff, Laurell Sims and Meag Sargent, have been fortunate to serve as Directors for Slow Food Chicago. Laurell served from 2015-2019, and Meag is currently serving as an Executive Board Member for Food Justice & Policy and Communications.
Erika Allen, UGC’s CEO of Operations, and Laurell both were delegates to Terra Madre, as well as one of our former farmers, Brian Ellis. As farmers, the ability to be funded by the efforts of Slow Food Chicago to attend Terra Madre was incredible. As we know, the world is steadily becoming more urban – people are increasingly becoming dependent on cities for educational opportunities, higher standards of living, employment, and safety. In Chicago, much of this migration occurred in the mid-1900s; the 185 youth we provide paid job training for on the farm, their grandparents moved to northern states to seek a better life for themselves and their families. This pattern is repeating itself across the globe, stressing urban and peri-urban environments as more people need access to land and resources to feed their communities. The gap between nations, communities, and neighborhoods that have access to resources is shrinking. As resource scarcity intensifies, we will have to work together to find solutions and create sustainable food systems. The opportunity to expand our knowledge and learn from fellow growers and producers at Terra Madre about global solutions for local food economies was unbelievable. Slow Food Chicago was honored to continue to support Urban Growers Collective’s work through our annual fundraiser in the fall of 2020. We split the proceeds with UGC 50/50.
Can you tell me more about the Multiple Harvests LLC initiative?
UGC: Urban Growers Collective’s goal is to bring the benefits of healthy, locally grown produce and other nutritious foods to Chicago’s communities while supporting the growth of Chicago’s urban farmers. Our Fresh Moves Mobile Market is a bus that has been converted into a mobile farmers’ market. The “produce aisle on wheels” works toward closing the ‘food access gap’ by bringing produce to schools, community centers, churches, and health clinics — places that folks already frequent — to make good food as accessible as possible. Customers board the bus and shop for delicious local fruit and vegetables. The produce is priced to be affordable for all and to provide a fair return for the farmers. In this way, we are creating a food system that is sustainable and truly meets the needs of the community.
Any exciting future projects for Slow Food Chicago and Urban Growers Collective?
UGC: Urban Growers Collective has partnered with Green Era to create a Green Energy and Urban Farm campus. Urban Growers Collective is part of a dynamic team creating catalytic development of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. The Auburn Gresham, Always Growing team is kicking-off with two cornerstone projects — the Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub and the Green Era Renewable Energy and Urban Farming Campus — that broke ground in 2020 and will create a healthier future for Auburn Gresham. The two projects directly address health disparities in the community and decades of disinvestment by growing healthy, renewable energy, food, and economic opportunity for a more vibrant future.
The Renewable Energy and Urban Farming Campus is a true merger of industry with community development and education in a first-of-its-kind industrial and neighborhood campus. Situated on a 9-acre vacant brownfield at the northwest corner of 83rd and Wallace Streets between the Metra and freight train tracks, the Campus will include an Anaerobic Digester that recycles organic waste to produce renewable energy and nutrient-rich compost for local food production. The Digester will become a critical piece of green infrastructure for the city: a climate- resilient food system that supports farms, feeds people, and creates renewable energy.
The Green Era Campus is centered around a 2-acre Anaerobic Digester that will divert and transform food waste into natural gas energy (CNG) and nutrient rich compost. The remaining 7 acres houses Urban Growers Collective’s newest urban farm, a building for community engagement, plaza and event space, garden center, permaculture design, and programming.
SFC: In addition to our Snail of Approval program launching this summer, our board will be working to develop a gardening at home guide. Home gardens continued to increase in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we want to support any new gardeners in our community as best we can!
Throughout the 2021 growing season, we plan to continue to donate produce from our PreSERVE garden, including many Ark of Taste varieties, to the Love Fridge at Stone Temple Baptist Church. Our hope is to deepen these partnerships in the North Lawndale community and support all the wonderful new community gardening initiatives near our preSERVE garden!
Slow Food Chicago has also begun working with a Ph.D. researcher at the Illinois Institute of Technology to explore the idea that our capacity to create a more sustainable and equitable future depends on our ability to leverage our collective impact. We hope to continue this conversation as a board and broaden the discussion to include other Chicago-based food justice and policy organizations, farmers and producers, and community members. Our goal is to deepen our existing partnerships and nurture new ones, align Slow Food Chicago’s initiatives with other organizations’, and work towards the greatest collective impact to address Chicagoans’ current and future needs.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
UGC: While farming is the foundation upon which we grow, helping people thrive is our emphasis and the motivation for our work. We work towards building stronger, healthier communities through a variety of programming centered around Food Access, Job Training & Education, and Community Engagement. Through our programs, we provide training and education on urban agriculture and food systems; offer skill building experiences, jobs, and economic opportunities to youth; identify and lift up community priorities and needs; and use evidence-based practices to create safe and beautiful places for communities to convene, create, heal, and transform. We know that before folks can heal from the trauma created through centuries of racist policies and decades of divestment in Black and Brown communities, we must have good food. In Chicago, 1 in 4 people are food insecure. Having to choose between a nutritious meal and one’s other basic needs is nothing short of atrocious in the richest country in the world. Our work is to shift this dynamic so that the communities we work in can begin to heal and grow.
SFC: Slow Food first began as a grassroots response to the increasing industrialization of food and standardization of taste. With the rise of fast food, thousands of food varieties and food traditions are disappearing, and people are losing the connection between their plate and the planet. To counter the fast-food trend, Slow Food Chicago promotes alternatives to industrial food and farming, raises awareness of how our food impacts the environment, and supports the workers who produce our food.
Here in Chicago, we are in a unique position as we sit at the intersection of having an incredible local food scene, being one of the epicenters of urban farming, and being one of the most segregated cities in the country. Black and Brown communities, especially on Chicago’s South and West Sides, don’t have access to food that is good, clean, and fair in the same way that white North Side neighborhoods do. We want to work to remove barriers that BIPOC farmers, ranchers, and producers face – such as lack of land access or market opportunities – and to help provide all Chicagoans with enough nutritious and culturally-affirming food to eat.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
UGC: Our Farm and Production Manager, Malcolm Evans, expressed the most rewarding part of our work best: “I started coming down to the farm that we had in the Cabrini Green neighborhood when I was 10-years old in 2003, and when I was 12-years-old, I had the opportunity to help build out the farm we have in Grant Park. Before we had the farm at Grant Park (a garden in the heart of Chicago), I didn’t think that downtown Chicago was for Black kids. The Gold Coast was full of rich people and the farthest we ever got to downtown was the McDonalds on Chicago Avenue. Once we started going to the Grant Park Farm every day, I began to know that the Lakefront and the parks are for everyone. The first year we had 15 kids in our program downtown, and I think we all felt that way; that by the end of the program we belonged downtown, too. Now we have 45 teens in our Grant Park program, and those teens give free tours during the summer of the urban farm – a site where literally 10,000 people pass annually that grows food — and it has opened up a new world to teens who never felt entirely at home in our city.” When historically disenfranchised people begin to feel like they have a place and voice at the table – that they belong – we begin to shift the dynamic.
SFC: It’s most rewarding to help someone develop a stronger relationship with their food. This can mean different things for different people – maybe it’s working to increase food accessibility, helping someone grow their own fruits or vegetables for the first time, celebrating the cultural significance of a dish, or encouraging someone to slow down enough to fully enjoy and appreciate the meal they’re eating. Food is about more than just nourishment – it’s about people, feelings, community, connection, and how we find ways to survive, adapt, and take care of each other and this Earth we’re lucky enough to call home.
What is your favorite food memory, recipe, and/or food?
Laurell: The juice of mangoes running down my chin, heading to our family friend Tom’s farm and eating raw corn off the cob, and for better or worse, eating snails that my mom swore were mushrooms are the food memories I remember most vividly as a child. These memories were cultivated in large part by my mother, an army brat with roots in Kansas, but raised across the globe, from Orleans, France to Oahu, Hawaii. I was raised in Kansas, and in order to eat the foods of my mother’s childhood, we had to seek them out. Mangos, pineapple, and avocados are not grown locally, and it required a high degree of patience, persistence, and luck to find them. This chase made food exotic and mysterious for me. It also helped me see food, particularly meals, as inherently cultural. Food is a way to bring folks together: to share a meal, to try new tastes, to tell stories of childhood, family, and the adventures of the day. I like that food can both comfort you and challenge your senses — a good meal does both, especially when shared with those you love.
Meag: When I was a kid, I helped my parents transform our tiny Milwaukee backyard into an incredibly productive fruit and vegetable garden. With just over 250 square feet of yard, we grew much of what our family ate. Anything we didn’t need ourselves was shared with friends and neighbors. I remember my mom sending me door to door with grocery bags stuffed to the brim with green beans, tomatoes, and ears of corn. Most of my summers were spent in the kitchen with my parents cooking, canning, pickling, and preserving our harvests. My dad’s strawberry rhubarb jam is hands down my favorite thing we made. We’d make enough for the whole year and pile it into a huge freezer in our basement. Never had a better PB&J than one made with freshly baked bread, extra, extra crunchy peanut butter, and Dad’s homemade jam.