Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer...Know Your Alderman
This is part of the mission of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a Chicago nonprofit organization. The group is creating an ambitious program of "Ward Ambassadors" with a vision to have at least two representatives in each of Chicago's 50 wards train in urban agriculture issues to be a liaison to their local alderman.
"We're working to have people develop relationships with their alderman, with their ward staff, gets them familiar with what urban agriculture is and have people go out, talk to their alderman," says AUA Director Billy Burdett.
Burdett believes many of the ward staffs in the city don't really understand the issues or opportunities that can be created through urban agriculture. "We can effect change from the ground up," he says. The first step would be for the ambassadors to get the aldermen and their staffs to learn about the local food projects in their ward or nearby and familiarize them with issues that face urban growers.
"Just getting that awareness is huge," Burdett says. And it's only a start.
In the Victory Garden movement during World War II, community gardening was going on in nearly every neighborhood in the city. Then, as time went on, much of the land was reclaimed for buildings or was left untended. But with the local foods movement gaining momentum in recent years, community gardens in all shapes and sizes as well as farmers markets have been reshaping the local food economy. "Buy Local" is keeping the money closer to home. With the addition of several indoor growing operations, like The Plant in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood and more recently, Gotham Greens in the Pullman neighborhood—boasting the world's largest rooftop garden—urban agriculture has been flourishing.
At a recent discussion during the FamilyFarmed Good Food Festival and Conference in Chicago, Gotham Greens co-founder Viraj Puri and indoor agriculture producer Gary Lazarski of MightyVine in Rochelle, Illinois, corroborated the need for more community involvement in urban agriculture policy-making. Puri sees the importance of business, community and policy-makers coming together.
"There's a whole spectrum of urban agriculture—you've got community agriculture, you've got educational farms—I think for the entire ecosystem to exist we have to support one another," Puri says.
Lazarski's glasshouse operation spans 15 acres of farmland outside of Chicago and he grows tomatoes year round in a high-tech facility. He says community organizing is the best way to effect change in urban agriculture. "There's a lot of plates to keep spinning, right? Effecting legislation, building demand, using your purchasing power to create that demand, but I think on the level that Billy is talking about is probably the most effective way to get the kind of change that is going to be long-lasting: ward ambassadors, community organizations."
Burdett says building awareness of existing projects in each ward is an important first step. The ambassadors "can also serve as a resource for those wards. Then when there's a policy issue coming up—where we're maybe trying to change the zoning rules so that small market gardens can get established in residential-zoned areas, where there's tons of vacant land right now—they can go to their alderman and say, 'Hey, there's this ordinance proposal, we'd love to get you on board with it.' We can effect change from the ground up in that sort of way as well."