By Maura Turcotte
As a student at Little Village Lawndale High School, Sergio Ruiz, 18, rarely had the option of fresh, healthy food. So much so that students would crack jokes about the junk food and the school’s notorious neighbor, Cook County Jail.
“They would always compare it to the jail food,” Ruiz said of his classmates. “Like the jail food, they at least get better options.”
The lack of nourishing food goes beyond just Ruiz’s high school though. Throughout Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, community members struggle with reliable access to affordable, nutritious and safe foods. A 2017 survey by the Sinai Urban Health Institute deemed just under half of all households in Little Village as food insecure. The report also found that half of households rely on food stamp benefits.
In the last decade, however, community members and organizations have begun addressing the food security issue by going to the neighborhood’s roots. Little Village hosts over five food-producing community gardens, offering residents the opportunity to take control of their food and health.
“Folks are learning how to compost and not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We learn how to do that naturally. We’re learning how to grow our own chickens, we’re learning how to, I don’t know, plant and harvest and everything on a schedule,” said Karen Canales Salas, the environmental justice education coordinator for the advocacy group Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “We know what works best at a certain month versus — so you know, we’re learning.”
In 2013, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO, worked with community members to establish the Semillas de Justicia Community Garden a few streets south of Little Village’s bustling commercial avenue. Redeveloped from a brownfield, a former industrial site with environmental contamination, the 1.5-acre plot started off with just five to seven families gardening. Today, the green space hosts about 40 families.
Garlic, onions, chiles, tomatoes — most of the vegetables and fruit grown in the teeming plots at Semillas de Justicia are intended for creating simple salsas.
The produce pickings are not slim either in Little Village. Over 1,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables were harvested in fiscal year 2018 at Sembrando Bajo el Sol, El Jardin de la Calabaza and Cosecha Verde, three other community gardens in the neighborhood run by local nonprofit Enlace Chicago.
But for Little Village’s predominantly Latino community, nearly 45% of which is foreign-born according to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, the garden space offers more than just an opportunity to grow basic ingredients. It also aims to provide a measure of justice.
“Black and brown folks, like, we have a connection to land and food that is often taken away really, really quickly, and that comes in the form of food deserts and not having fresh food, not having affordable fresh food, right?” Canales Salas said. “Not even having land to grow on, it means even more to provide those kinds of spaces.”
Research on community gardens indicates they can make healthy food significantly more accessible. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Community Health found that food insecurity in a low-income Latino community in rural Oregon was almost entirely eliminated after a neighborhood garden was introduced.
Moreover, the study found that the frequency of children under 18 years old eating vegetables several times a day jumped from nearly a quarter of the population to 64%. With adults, that number jumped from just under 20% to nearly 85% of the population eating vegetables several times a day.
“This is the kind of research that should lead to policy changes,” said Patricia Carney, a family medicine professor at Oregon Health and Science University and one of the study’s researchers.
The gardens, in addition to providing access to cheaper and healthier food options, can provide a therapeutic effect for people with mental health issues as well, Canales Salas said. Nearly 15% of the population in Little Village reported depressive and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in the 2017 Sinai Urban Health Institute survey.
“Whether folks are doing it because it is cheaper to grow your own tomatoes versus having to go buy them, it is also creating this other side effect of, ‘Well, it is also my therapy. When I go there, even though it is physical labor, I am able to emotionally and mentally feel better,’” she said.
Rolando Perez, a garden teaching assistant provider for Enlace, said he has witnessed similar health effects among the nonprofit’s nearly 200 gardeners.
For instance, he recalled a gardener who was struggling with the death of a family member. As the two tended to the produce and talked, however, she brightened and ultimately left the garden laughing, Perez said.
“It might take a couple of, a while before someone may open up,” he said. “But just being here, working together, you’re away from those mental anguishes.”
That opportunity for building community is critical, Perez explained, because many Little Village residents left behind friends and family in other countries. Moreover, he added, residents have little time to develop those bonds.
“I guess the American Dream is filled with a lot of work, you know?” Perez said.
Molly Doane, an associate anthropology professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who has researched gardens across the city, attributes that relief to how the spaces connect immigrant communities back to their home countries. Many immigrants and refugees in Chicago, she explained, come from places where they grew their own food.
“You come here, you don’t speak the language, you don’t have any job, so you don’t know what’s going on, you’re incompetent, like, suddenly. Then you go to the garden, and you’re doing this familiar thing, and you’re totally competent,” Doane said. “That gives people confidence and a feeling of groundedness and place.”
In the meantime, the Little Village gardens have largely grown dormant as winter starts. At Sembrando Bajo el Sol, the remaining vegetables have been chopped up to decompose and return nutrients back to the soil.
Looking toward the future though, Canales Salas said she hopes the gardens’ benefits can be expanded through opportunities such as sustainable businesses. Perez, likewise, envisions the gardens as empowering spaces that further sustain the community.
“I honestly would want to have all this food to be free, and hopefully create our own ecosystem, our own economy, where we’re just growing food for our community, our local community,” Perez said. “No one has to actually buy or work for it, we would just grow it in all these empty lots and whatnot. That would be a beautiful thing to do, you know?”