Windy City Harvest takes elitism out of urban farming and fresh produce

Melanie, chef, farmer
"I did the urban agriculture apprenticeship program. I bring my training full circle because I wanted to keep teaching kids cooking and gardening," Chef Melanie said.

By Briana Garrett
Medill Reports

The modern farmer is changing fast, with the terrain for food production and urban farming at the center of this transition.

Urban farming can mean produce gardens in backyards, rooftops and assigned city land plots as well as farming systems such as aquaponics, an agricultural approach where fish wastes nourish plants growing in water that  it recycled once plants soak up the nutrients and purify the water.

Transporting food contributes to the fossil fuels emissions associated with global warming while producing more locally-grown food  can mitigate this issue. Under Chicago Botanic Garden, Windy City Harvest offers urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiatives to help build up local food systems, foster healthier communities, and make the economy greener. At Windy City Harvest, volunteers and staff are at the forefront of this mission.

I visited the Arturo Velasquez Institute, 2800 S. Western Ave., and spoke with volunteers and growers. Melanie Carter is a formally trained chef who loves growing food and Nick Irizarry is a current Windy City Harvest Urban Agriculture apprentice. The two of them explained their vertical farming techniques, their aquaponics system, and showed me around their plush garden inside the greenhouse.

Most of the food that is harvested from the greenhouse will be discounted and distributed to people in the neighborhood.

“You’re achieving something bigger than yourself and you feel like you’re giving back,” Carter said.

Windy City Harvest operates several urban gardens in the Chicago area and the not-for-profit’s main garden is at 3555 Ogden Ave., where classes also are held.

plants, greenhouse, grow
Nick Irizzary and other Windy City Harvest team members grow an assortment of plants and herbs such as aloe vera, using aquaponics, at the gardening program at the Arturo Velasquez West Side Technical Institute. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
fish, aquaponics
The fish in the aquaponics tank are all male, stabilizing the school population. The fecal matter from the fish tank and the water are filtered through the Swirl Filter to provide plant nourishment, while removing ammonia from the water. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
When the school of fish becomes too large, growers harvest the fish to stabilize the population. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Under specific temperatures, leafy greens sprout in the hydroponic beds. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
plants, greenhouse
Melanie Carter gives a tour of the greenhouse and the different plants that are in bloom. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Melanie, chef, farmer
“I did the urban agriculture apprenticeship program. I bring my training full circle because I wanted to keep teaching kids cooking and gardening,” Carter said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
“My chef demos show how to use the medicinal property of herbs such as rosemary for calming the senses,” Carter said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Carter points to the greens that Windy City Harvest grows. “The stuff we grow in the garden, that we grow here, is sourced from Chicago, made in Chicago. There’s no carbon footprint because it’s not getting sent,”  said Nick Irizarry, a member of the garden team. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
“A lot of us have space and we don’t even realize that we’ve got space. A lot of places actually give away stuff. You could get grounds and bananas from ice cream shops and coffee shops and make your own compost,” Irizarry said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Nick, fish
Irizarry says that agriculture has allowed him to turn his life around and impact others. “They give a lot of felons and veterans second chances. Six of us got a scholarship to be certified in food safety,” Irizarry said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Swirl Filter to helps reduce water waste. “Aquaponics and hydroponics use about 90% less water than traditional farming. So all this water is recirculated and reused again,” Irizarry said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Nick, food
“One of the problems we’re having is we could provide all this fresh food” but people have to learn how to cook it, Irizarry said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Scallions grow in soil beds. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
In small pockets bedded with rocks and warmed by the artificial lighting, plants grow and receive nutrients from the aquaponics system. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Irizarry breaks off  pieces of rosemary and dill. “I will have kids here that have never seen a carrot come out of the ground so they’re mind blown. It starts with the youth,” Irizarry said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)
Carter says that to shift the narrative around food, health, and access, “you need to reach out to the hood. That’s just the bottom line.” (Briana/MEDILL)
Photo at top: “I did the urban agriculture apprenticeship program. I bring my training full circle because I wanted to keep teaching kids cooking and gardening,” Melanie Carter said. (Briana Garrett/MEDILL)