By Trina Ryan
On a breezy Saturday afternoon, Reynaldo Engram arrives at work early to sift through boxes of carrots. He performs this task with painstaking precision, holding each carrot up to the light, rubbing his thumb slowly over its dirt-speckled orange skin. As hub assistant at Farm on Ogden, a spacious agriculture facility on the West Side of Chicago, Engram’s responsibilities include anything from watering plants to sweeping floors to cleaning bathrooms. “I do what I’m asked,” says the 59-year-old, smiling. But today he has an important job, one he takes seriously: inspecting produce for defects. He wants to make sure the most attractive-looking vegetables go out to his neighbors of North Lawndale.
“I want everyone to feel as strong and healthy as I do,” he says. “Not too many folks around here can say they feel that way at my age.”
Long buffeted by gun and gang violence, North Lawndale consistently ranks as one of the highest violent crime areas in Chicago. According to a recent study by Rush University Medical Center, nearly half its residents live below the poverty line and more than 20 percent lack health insurance. Rosario Maldonado, 30, a sales supervisor at Farm on Ogden, remembers working as a receptionist at Mount Sinai Hospital and seeing patients come in with “bags of prescriptions,” she says. “It made me really conscience about my own eating and how I didn’t want to end up with a diet-related disease that required me to take a pill for the rest of my life.”
In 2016, Chicago Botanic Garden teamed up with Lawndale Christian Health Center to launch Veggie Rx, a local initiative that aims to bring healthy foods to SNAP-eligible residents with dietary restrictions. The program, which runs from June to November, allows patients at the health center to receive one free box of produce every week, for up to 10 weeks, along with $100 of coupons to spend at Farm on Ogden’s indoor market. To participate in Veggie Rx, patients must register for at least one complimentary cooking demo and nutrition class, both of which take place at Farm on Ogden’s workshop space, before collecting their first box of produce.
Truly Gannon, a dietician with the health center who has worked with Veggie Rx patients since the spring of 2017, notes that one of the biggest highlights for participants is knowing what to do with the vegetables once they get them home. “It gives them a tangible idea to work with, something they don’t always get when talking to physicians about their health,” she says.
Farm on Ogden sits just under the CTA Central Park Pink Line station, surrounded by nondescript brick apartment homes. The sprawling 20,000-square-foot facility, once a car dealership, resembles a horticultural paradise. High ceilings arch over an indoor market, where, depending on the season, customers can find carrots the size of eggplants and zebra tomatoes that live up to their name. The site comes complete with its own half-acre farm, two aquaponics systems and a 7,300-square-foot greenhouse.
This being summer, Farm on Ogden is bustling with activity—hundreds of tilapia swim in the aquaponics tanks, honey supers teem with bees, workers sow seeds in the garden. Having such a place in North Lawndale not only incites curiosity among residents; it provides them with a welcome distraction from the allure of the streets.
A 2017 survey conducted by the Sinai Urban Health Institute revealed two telling pieces of data about North Lawndale: Nearly half its residents were obese, and one in six suffered from depression. While it’s common knowledge that eating fruits and vegetables improves physical health, studies show it can assuage symptoms related to mental health conditions as well. Mike Rogerson, a professor at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, said in a recent interview with NPR that “our bodies physically respond well to environment and nature because of our species’ historical past.” Community gardens—places that symbolize growth, renewal, life—often provide a respite for people living in poverty and areas with high crime, giving them a sense of hope and a reason to make healthy changes in their lives. “People who start out worse have more improvement,” Rogerson says. “It’s a leveler across society.”
Veggie Rx is a part of Chicago Botanic Garden’s agriculture department called Windy City Harvest, which not only oversees Farm on Ogden and its operations, but also offers job placement opportunities for teens and adults. Reynaldo Engram, a former apprentice of Windy City Harvest’s Corps program, a 14-week work study that provides non-violent offenders with transitional job training, has seen his life turn around from teaching others about the benefits of healthy foods.
Dressed in worn black slacks and bearing a necklace of African-colored beads, he cuts an image less of a farm worker than of a witch doctor. In the middle of his necklace sits a large amethyst crystal, a gift from Maldonado, which he says he wears every day for “good energy.” Calling himself an “optimistic thinker,” Engram projects an unalloyed happiness. He’ll stop whatever he’s doing to greet customers, often regaling them with his theories of holistic medicine and agriculture, explaining how farming dates “all the way back to Egyptian times,” and how our ancestors used herbs to cure diseases instead of prescribing pills.
Engram came to Windy City Harvest after serving 14 days in the Cook County Jail on 26th Street. Of his incarceration, he says he “wasn’t a bad fella, just a drug-dealer trying to feed his family.” At the age of 18, he felt compelled to the streets, curious about the drug world’s easy access to money. But, according to his account, law enforcement eventually caught up with him. “For a long time, they didn’t catch me,” he says, “but when they finally did, they knew who I was.”
Entering the judicial system for the first time at 52—“a miracle,” he says, for a black man living in a violent neighborhood in Chicago—the judge gave him an ultimatum: two years’ probation and find work, or go to prison. “I’m not really proud of everything I done,” Engram says. “You make mistakes, and you try to correct them. So for the last four to five years, I’ve been here with Windy City Harvest correcting my mistakes.”
“I’m still growin’ stuff,” he says, a playful grin stretching across his face. “But now I’m growin’ vegetables.”
Through her work with Veggie Rx, Truly Gannon says she’s noticed one particular change in her patients: They interact more with their neighbors. On the streets, at convenience stores, in church—people want to tell their friends about the program, “a sign that shows how happy they are and that they want others to be happy with them,” she says. “When you see results like that, people start to feel less concerned about the social realities of their situation.”
Anthony Stephenson, a work study crew member with Windy City Harvest who spent time in prison for burglary, says working outside gives him peace, clears his mind. The stability of having a job has given him more than a paycheck; it’s helped him feel a part of something important. “I’m a part of a crew now, a crew that’s on the right side, not on the wrong side,” he says.
Stephenson, 47, wears many hats in his role, including signing up participants for Veggie Rx’s cooking classes. Quiet and observant, with dark, inquisitive eyes, he notes the level of enthusiasm from people in the program, how they engage with the workshops, and continue to come back every week. A father himself, he also points out how health education trickles down through generations: parents teach their children about healthy foods, who then teach their children, and so on.
Natasha Coleman, a Windy City Harvest apprenticeship graduate and farm coordinator at Farm on Ogden, describes the educational component of Veggie Rx as a “family-bonding experience.” Bright-eyed and apple-cheeked, the 22-year-old self-proclaimed tomboy speaks affectionately about the idea of using one’s hands to prepare food—the tactile sensation of connecting with nature, of letting the mind and hands roam free with abandon. “It puts you back in touch with your childhood,” she says, twirling one of her short dreadlocks around her index finger. “Digging in the dirt, playing with worms—we had no sense of boundaries then.”
Two customers walk through the door, and Engram abandons his box of carrots to greet them. He leads them to a Windy City Harvest placard and begins the tour, his gap-toothed smile beaming.
Though he seems a natural conversationalist now, Engram remembers a time when talking to people didn’t come so easily. Recalling the cold isolation of the streets, he says, “I didn’t have too many friends, and I didn’t hang with no people. It was always me, myself and I.”
Farm on Ogden has given Engram more than a sense of pride and purpose, he says; it’s given him a family. Like Stephenson, he feels a part of something greater than himself—that he’s bringing real change to a community, his community. “It just amazes me,” he says. “You can put a seed in the ground, and watch it grow. And then you realize that you’re helping millions and millions of people.”