Category Archives: Urban Agriculture

Ode to story-telling, home for the holidays

Bim Willow, named after his talent for transforming willow trees into unique furniture, has hosted the Michigan Peace Fest on his ranch in Locota for the past 18 years. (June, 2007)

It’s been a month since my dSLR camera broke. The holiday season has been kind in granting me the time and resources (I’m a broke AmeriCorps volunteer after all) to slow down and fix what needs fixing. Now with my camera ready to go, I’m motivated to hit the ground running when I get back to San Francisco. There is an endless supply of people and projects to write and photograph about, especially a community garden I, some folks from the SF Society of St. Vincent de Paul and a couple of  experienced permaculture designers are launching in the Richmond district this January.

In the meantime, I’ve been spending my time at home in Illinois rejuvenating from a chaotic, challenging, yet empowering, last five months as a caseworker in Oakland, CA. The broken reality of the hundreds of job-less individuals that walk-in each month struggling to keep stable housing, care for sick relatives or expunge rehabilitating criminal charges have compelled me to be more diligent about taking a closer look at the intricate mosaics of personal stories. Committing myself to a year  as a underpaid caseworker in a financially struggling social service agency is exactly where I belong right now. It’s been an invaluable opportunity to be immersed in the real failings of a system that does not give able and willing employees a chance to work and support themselves and their families.

I’ve been inspired in learning about techniques in documenting the everyday stories of people I work with. In addition to the videos from Media Storm, I’ve been plugging into audio narratives and  am excited to try recording a couple of my clients (with their and the Society’s consent) for this blog’s purposes. I really admire and respect what these media production groups and how they are appealing to National Public Radio.

StoryCorps… an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.

By recording the stories of our lives with the people we care about, we experience our history, hopes, and humanity. Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends through StoryCorps. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to take home and share, and is archived for generations to come at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our award-winning broadcasts on public radio and the Internet. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, creating a growing portrait of who we really are as Americans.”

Long Haul Productions….documents stories of everyday lives, stories of people and communities in transition, and stories of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things.

When we choose a story, we’re really in it for the long haul: we spend months, sometimes years, getting to know our characters. These are documentaries that mark the course of human life: they’re inherently dramatic, immediate, and true. As such, they yield some of the most memorable programming in American media today, stories a thousand times more compelling than the sensational programs and news features that crowd television and radio, far removed from our everyday.”


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Filed under Journalism, San Francisco, St. Vincent DePaul Center, Urban Agriculture

A look inside where DePaul’s campus dining stocks up on fresh produce

Peter Testa startied loading produce on his father’s delivery trucks at the age of 12. Although, he never ended up going college, he knows how to get good grades-in eggs, tomatoes, lettuce and 1200 other kinds of fresh produce, that is.

Continuing in the family tradition since 1912, Testa is the third generation president of Testa Produce, a premier food service distribution facility in the Chicago Metro area. DePaul’s Chartwells Dining Services has been a customer of Testa for 10 years. Testa’s other customers include O’Hare airport restaurants, five-star hotels, and hundreds of Chicago restaurants.

With a contract that is negotiated every few years, Testa continues to supply 100% of Chartwells’ fresh produce. That means the lettuce on your cheeseburger, tomato on your salad and egg in your omelet at one time saw the inside of Testa’s facility.

Times have changed since his grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, first started selling fruit and vegetables from a horse and buggy, but the ethic and passion for providing high quality and sustainable food has not.

“Customers, like Chartwells, have initiatives to purchase from local farms,” Testa said. “I can tell you that supporting the local farmer is first and foremost for Testa during the Midwest Growing Season.”

The Midwest only has a short season compared to other areas of the country, Testa explained in his weekly Market Report. Out of all the crops grown in Illinois, only 1% is produced is for food for human consumption. The rest is for Ethanol or Commodities. Illinois still falls short of Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s locally grown food production.

“The neighborhood farmer’s markets are not a good gauge of what’s going on with farmers in Illinois,” Testa said, calling attention to the difficulty of getting more farmers to grow different crops.

“The problem is money and distribution,” Testa explained. “If a farmer does grow, say, beets and he wants to bring them to Chicago and he is 200 miles away, he doesn’t want to fool with trucking and delivery because of the time and money involved. At the same time, if I were to buy these beets, I have to make sure they are safe or grown under GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) procedures.” This is just one of the standards farmers have to pass in order for Testa to buy product from them.

For Testa, sustainability means a way farming. Although that lettuce on your hamburger or cherry tomato may have been grown under GAP procedures, it does not necessarily imply that it’s organic, or in other words pesticide and hormone-free.

Testa acknowledges that most people, particularly students, may not be concerned about what it takes to get that food to your fork.

“Americans are so used to walking inside the grocery store that they don’t think twice about where their food came from. If they knew, I think we’d all have a better appreciation.” Testa is working to connect his customers to their food by offering farm tours this summer.

Chartwell’s initiatives towards sustainable practices are in line with Testa’s philosophy. However, with over 1600 other customers Testa realizes that not all of them have a similar environmental mentality-and that he still has a business to run.

“My main job is to figure out what everyone wants. I push local and organic food on customers like Chartwells. Some are resistant. There’s this perception that organic is more expensive.” With Testa’s buying power and knowledge of production costs, he is able to buy what would have been $45 for a crate of organic apples from a farmers market for $25.

Chartwells controls costs and limits spikes by working with Testa’s weekly market prices. If the price of those cherry tomatoes in your salad were to go up, then Chartwells would have to eat the cost and not raise the price for the DePaul community, Stacey Shaw, Chatwells’ Central Region Marketing Director, explains. “We would call Peter and ask how long he expects the price to be high. Then we are able to plan out our menu for that week,” Shaw said.

Food service is about a consistent product and price, but that does not always come easy. Beans were $10 last week, but $50 this week due to the amount of rain and the difficulty of getting into the fields.

“Every morning I wake up and wonder what is going to go wrong. Whether its salmonella outbreaks in Mexico, hurricanes wiping out banana plantations in Central America or even too rain in Midwestern bean fields,” Testa said. “Mother Nature controls the deal in end and sometimes customers don’t like to hear that.”

As if these weren’t enough concerns to fill his 15-hour work day, Testa will break ground-and Chicago history-with the construction his new, innovative “green” facility. At 1.2 million and 265 ft., his plans for an on-site wind turbine will a first for the city of the Chicago. It will also be the tallest structure on the South Side.

In addition, he plans to install a green roof, a 5,000 gallon rain-collecting tank for septic water, solar hot water system, local produced and recycled building material, and LED lighting-just to name a few. Overall, his building is projected to use 50% less energy than what a traditional building of that demeanor would have cost.

Chartwells was the first customer to congratulate and thank him for his socially and environmentally responsible building plan, while other customers were concerned that this would mean that might have to pay more. “My prices will remain competitive.” Testa affirmed. “I’m just thinking long-time. I won’t see a return on this building for at least 10 years, but it’s worth it. You could say I’m a little bit in love with Mother Nature.”

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Filed under Chicago, Urban Agriculture

Report back from 2009 Chicago Green Festival

Alice Waters, founder of Edible Educations, was a no show at the Saturday session. Although disappointed, it was near the end of a long eight hour day of taking photos and sitting in sessions ranging from Amy Goodman to one on how to make your biofuel. I was ready to go home and had a 25 minute bike ride from Navy Pier to Lincoln Park to mull over the day.

Two trained volunteers sorting trash

Two trained volunteers sorting trash

Overall, the sustainable event planning and preparation was impressive. There were  facilities manned by volunteers to seperate recyclables, compost and waste product throughout the floor. At one station, I spoke with two teenagers from different Chicago Public High Schools. “I am learning about how recycling can help protect the planent in science class,” Kimberly Hood said. “Today we were taught what we can reuse and what to throw out,” affirms her friend who was trained amongst the hundreds of other volunteers who were trained to take and sort people’s garbage from the festival.

The number and variety of non-profits represented over the weekend showed the many layers of environmental justice and consciousness. NeighborSpace, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving lands for public use, like my garden for instance was one instance (check out interview in video). It seemed though, that the majority of the floor was taken up by vendors trying to sell you their eco-friendly product. From make-your own soda so that you didn’t have to by aluminum or plastic packaging to Fair Trade apparel, there were consumer opportunities at every corner. Although I was intitially confused at the divorce between frugality and eco-friendly habits, the Green Festival’s philosophy highlights necessity. Only buy from vendors if you need it, and know that your dollar will be making less of a carbon footprint. So, I bought myself a Fair Trade graduation/summer dress, something I needed anyway and probably would have wound up buying from H&M.


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Ode to open, public spaces in the City


Spending an enjoyable weekend outdoors, from gardening, biking, guitar playing to good ol’ conversing with friends is reminder of how important safe, clean and abundant public spaces are in the city.


I visited my garden and saw Dominque, my plot neighbor (pictured below), for the first time since September. I felt nostalgia creep in as we caught up with one another and then began to share our ever-so-exciting plans for our gardens this year. I could insert here how geeky our conversation got, but instead I’ll end with words from a fellow gardener last year.

We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden. -Anonymous


Later in the afternoon, I had to stop by one of West Town/Wicker Park’s oldest bakeries–The Alliance Bakery (1736 W. Division). Although it’s passed through different owners in the last year, the bakery has held on to it’s Polish roots since the the early 1900s (date not exact, but definetely before 1920). A new addition to the bakery this year included a large lounge area in the next door building. It’s a quiet and comfy environment to bring your laptop and work while enjoying a yummy pastry with a cup of coffee. However, the warm sunshine and cool breeze from the lake made it a perfect day to enjoy Alliance’s outdoor patio (picutured below).


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An old gardening friend

dsc_0985Since activity at Frankie Machine garden has been slow, I decided to check out City Farm. If you haven’t already heard of this farm which sits at the corner of the busy intersection of Division and Clyborn, strattling the Cabrini-Green and Gold Coast neighborhood, then I would recommend checking it out in the next several months as fresh (and cheap) vegetables start to be harvested and sold to happy eaters (and four star  restuarants). I was hoping to chat with some volunteers working there, as I know a lot of them also have garden plots elsewhere in the city, but no luck. On a warm, sunny mid-afternoon, no one was to be found.


With it being a beautiful Spring day in Chicago, I decided to ride my bike West on Division towards my garden anyway. On the way I stopped at the plaza on Divsion and Ashland to shoot some photos of people enjoying the day by the fountain. To my surprise, Fortino, my gardening friend who I haven’t seen since last September, was one of those people. We spent the next hour dsc_1014catching up (with my attempt at Spanish, and his broken English), occasionally interupted by the passing buses. This will be his 21st year gardening at Frankie Machine.

On Wednesday, I will be talking to Doug, the garden coordinator at the Wicker Park ornamental garden–a 12,000 sq.ft piece of green. He and the garden have seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood in the last decade. Till then…

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Filed under Chicago, Urban Agriculture

An edible education

Today I received an email with the schedule of the upcoming Green Festival at Navy Pier, May 16 and 17. I became very excited as my eyes fixed upon Alice Water’s name, scheduled to speak on Edible Educations. Waters, now a national leader in the Edible Education in schools movement, began with The Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom for urban public school students at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Children grow food in gardens at school and school cafeterias serve local, nutritious, organic food. Waters says that Edible Education addresses the issues of childhood hunger and obesity. Anderson, a Chicago Public Magnet Elementary School, located a block away from the Frankie Machine garden (where I work at) could benefit from such a program. As of now, it doesn’t look like Anderson has any kind of gardening program.

Check out this video of Alice Waters discussing how weave food into a curriculum at school:

However, like Water’s Edible Schoolyard program, many other schools are following suit. Even First Lady Michelle Obama was quick to start an organic garden of the South Lawn of the White House. Mrs. Obama brought school children from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School to help with in the growing and producing of fresh vegetables for the White House Kitchen and for a local soup kitchen. 

With access to two public gardens that grows fresh produce just one and two blocks away, I am curious as whether the Anderson’s school administrators have considered having their students partake in garden projects. The management at Frankie Machine has been rather loose and “organic” so far this season. I’m not sure if Frankie Machine even has the capability to organize a CPS school project to learn about and grow vegetables. I have yet to hear back from the site steward and even after my visit today, I haven’t seen anyone. I’m getting anxious. All I can is continue leaving voicemails and show up at the garden.

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Filed under Chicago, Urban Agriculture

West Town and its public gardens

Frankie Machine gardenThe Frankie Machie garden, which I currently have a plot at, was formed by concerned community members wanting to preserve open land for shared public use in 1988. Ten years later the NeighborSpace, a nonprofit dedicated to helping communities protect their community garden or parks from potential development, partnered with the gardeners at Frankie Machine. NeighborSpaces works with the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District and Forest Preserve District of Cook County to give community members the resources to transform vacant or unused land  for public gardens. There are over 400 public gardens in the city, however less than 60 are registered and protected by NeighborSpaces.

Real estate prices continue on the up trend in West Town as more and more new restaurants, bars and shops continue to change the landscape and populations of this neighborhood.  Gentrification can largely be attributed to an influx of artists and students over the last  30 years.  A group of local artists even came up with the garden’s name.  “Frankie Machine” is the main character in  Nelson Algren’s novel “The Man With the Golden Arm.”

Although a lot of young people reside in West Town, what was once a large Hispanic population is starting to decrease because of the rising cost of living. Hispanic populations have dropped from the area by 47 percent from the 1990s to 2000.

Since beginning to garden at Frankie Machine in spring of 2008, I have experienced a lot of diversity amongst those who come to garden.Of the people I became closet with was Tom Stone,  73, who was raised in Chicago, Fortino Rodriquez, 68 who immigrated from Mexico 35 years ago, and Dominque Darus, 27, who moved to Chicago from Poland a few years ago.

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Filed under Chicago, Urban Agriculture