Patsy Benveniste is the vice president of Community Education at the Chicago Botanic Garden. In this interview she talks about the organization’s Windy City Harvest program, an urban farming program that partners with the Richard J. Daley College and many other organizations to train and employ young adults in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture. The program develops collaborations that benefit communities and produces high-value, nutritious produce that is made available and affordable for local residents in retail outlets.
Food Tank: What was the impetus for the Chicago Botanic Garden to start the Windy City Harvest Program?
Patsy Benveniste: The whole urban agriculture commitment really got started in 2002 after we had been working with community gardens and school gardens for years. Chicago Botanic Garden was always a very active program supporter of community-based gardens, and that heritage dated back to the time before we even had a physical garden. Chicago Botanic Garden is only 41 years old, but the society was founded in 1890 to help Chicago get ready for the Columbian Exposition [the Chicago World’s Fair] of 1893.
During World War II, Chicago became the nationwide headquarters for victory gardens, and those were all food gardens in which people grew their own food in their backyards on land that was designed for family plots. That was a heady time in this country for local production – the country was sending as much as they could overseas to support the troops. Americans were growing approximately 40 percent of all the fresh produce that was consumed in this country. That remains the point of inspiration for a lot of the resurgence of the local food movement.
FT: What is the aim of the Windy City Harvest program?
PB: The purpose of our program is to develop a trained and skilled workforce to create jobs in economically depressed communities. We want to foster entrepreneurship because we think the local food system can be a reality, not because of foundation support programs – it has to take off and be sustainable on its own merits.
We’re obviously experts at teaching sustainable growing techniques, and because we’re a nonprofit and an education institution, we have a special emphasis on the importance of feeding and educating communities through the work that we do.
FT: What are the components of the program?
PB: Windy City Harvest is the “brand name” for our urban agriculture program. These program components include the Youth Farm program, the Corps program (transitional jobs for justice-involved and Workforce Investment Act (WIA) eligible individuals) and the Apprenticeship program (the nine-month certificate and paid internship training program we run annually for 15-20 individuals).
FT: How did the program begin working with underserved populations?
PB: We got started in this business in a serious way when we had a chance through an appropriation from Illinois Senator Durbin, and we got enough money to establish the Green Youth Farm. This was basically a youth leadership development program that uses sustainable agriculture and food production as the platform for teaching all kinds of things. Our goal was to work with kids in underserved communities who had very limited access to the outdoors, didn’t know where food came from and oftentimes were in the early stages of the consequences of a bad diet.
We started in a community called North Chicago in 2003. The area is very low income, has a lot of the same demographic and problem profiles of inner city communities. Then we expanded those sites to the city, so we currently run three more sites in the city of Chicago.
Starting in 2007 we launched a first pilot program for adult certificate training. It was 12 weeks long, and we learned during that time what we needed to change to make the program work better.
Then we started working with this program out of a local city college. We found a home by word of mouth with a local campus called Arturo Velasquez Institute [part of the Richard J. Daley College system]. It is in the neighborhood of Lawndale, southwest of downtown Chicago, a largely African American Hispanic community. We approached them and said we have a program that we would like to deliver but we need a space, can we do business together? And they welcomed us with open arms.
In 2008 we started running the program as a full-fledged operation out of that location. The Illinois Community College Board approved the curriculum we developed for continuing education credit so we are able to recruit through the city college, and students who enroll are full-time students of the city college system and are able to accrue credits.
The course begins in February, and it runs to middle of October to follow the growing system. February is class time and growing technique experience in the greenhouse, then as the spring develops we work outside.
One third of the 15 to 20 people we recruit for class typically come from the justice system, either juvenile justice or alternative sentencing, and they’re looking for a way to get job skills and transition back into mainstream employment. They may have fairly rudimentary reading and academic skills. The other third are Workforce Invest Act (WIA) people who face significant barriers to employment because of job dislocation, lack of education, income, etc. The final group includes people who may want to change careers (for example lawyers, real estate agents, teachers etc.) or who want to get deeply involved as skilled players in the local food system movement.
The students are divided into work teams, and we find that they really form a cohesive unit. They learn from each other, and it tends to be a really valuable experience for everybody involved.
FT: How does the program help students prepare for and enter the work world?
PB: We assign students to a three-month paid internship. Most of the interns are placed within our own operation because we have a lot of satellite sites, but we also place interns outside of the garden with other organizations, like City Farm, Growing Home or Growing Power. We employ them in production, compost, etc. during June, July and August, and they work 25 hours a week for which they’re paid.
In late August, early September they come back for a final six weeks of classroom wrap up. They focus on business planning and develop a gardening project. They get a quarter acre of land and develop a crop plan and a business plan, and we ask them to tell us how they are going to run it as a sustainable operation.
We have about a 91 percent successful placement rate in green industry related, agriculture related jobs. We have corporate partners that we work with who are supporters of the program and who hire our graduates from the apprenticeship program.
In 2012 we were awarded a three-year Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) grant from the Department of Agriculture. The purpose of that grant was to support the Windy City Harvest apprenticeship program in general but also to support the development of entrepreneurial farmers.
We said over the course of the three years we will launch at least six urban farmers on their own operation on land that we control, and we will do this in an incubator style fashion where they get access to expertise, to tools. They get to our market channels, they can bundle their stuff up with our sales if they want, they get steady advice on what they’re doing, and they can do that for two years. For a nominal fee they operate a quarter-acre garden farm on land that we have through an arrangement with Cooke County, the Chicago Housing Authority, Legends Farm, or McCormick Place.
We asked for and received USDA funding to start six-semester long additional courses including business, rooftop gardening, extended season and aquaponics classes. There will also be a class in valued-added products.
A lot of the young people who come from the Core program have a hard time getting a job, and a part of our mission is to create a pathway for them to be employed and to be successful. A lot of these young guys are smart and talented and they really got caught up in dumb stuff when they were young, but when they’re given an opportunity they can perform like stars.
Darius Jones came through the Boot Camp program, took the apprenticeship program, then we hired him as a FT employee and now he is coordinator of a rooftop garden and operates his own entrepreneurial farm.
FT: Can you tell me about social/emotional techniques Windy City Harvest uses in working with youth and young adults?
PB: A lot of our early learning about how to work with youth came from the Food Project, which was established in Boston back in the early 90s . . . We focus on social emotional learning. We create a safe place for the kids, safe physically, psychologically. A place they can be who they are and not feel threatened either by external forces or by people who are with them in the program.
The kids are often from home and school situations where they get very little attention, very little adult feedback and positive affirmation, so this kind of program is deeply important to them. It’s highly structured, and once a week we have a straight talk session with each of the kids. They meet with an adult who tells them one thing that they’ve been observed doing well and a couple of things that they have to pay attention to and change, and they do this in front of a group. We borrowed a lot of what we understand worked with the kids for working with the adults in the apprenticeship program.
FT: You have worked with a lot of other organizations. Can you name some of them?
PB: We are in a consortium of organizations called Advocates for Urban Agriculture, which is dedicated to advancing, promoting and educating about urban agriculture to a broad membership and creating resources for people who are interested in doing it.
Growing Power is an organization whose sole purpose in being is urban agriculture.
Midwest Food is a sustainable food distribution company in Chicago, family owned, which buys everything that we will sell them. They also hire core graduates and people who go thru the transitional jobs or apprenticeship programs. Another business that hires our graduates is called Farmed Here. They’re a commercial scale aquaponics company that opened just over a year ago in Chicago, and they have a 90,000 square foot space where they grow herbs. We have commitments to women infants and Children (WIC) and to a few other small retail outlets.
FT: Where does WCH go from here?
PB: We are interested in the possibility of expanding rooftop growing. The McCormick Place is a research site for us. Instead of regular soil, we use a soil mix. It used to be all sedum and its been enriched, and we’re growing in four to six inches. We’re experimenting to learn what really succeeds up there.
One of our goals is to develop feasible methods for growing that are doable for rooftops. We’re looking at ways that we can grow food but also native plants. The gardens can create green infrastructure for a dense city, help control rainwater runoff and be a thermal control for the buildings on which they exist.
We’re looking at all kinds of ways that you can create what we call green infrastructure on land and on roofs to help regulate the impact of climate change in cities. The other part of our goal is to continue to graduate skilled growers who will be able to participate in every part of the food hub. They don’t all have to be farmers. They may want to get into distribution or into culinary end of things. We want to work with other organizations and the city and county to create a real local food hub that is vibrant and big in the Chicago area.