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Windy City Harvest: Transforming Chicago’s Food System to Advance Community Health

Our vision empowers individuals from marginalized communities to create food sovereignty by connecting them to food, health and jobs.

Photo of Julie Steffens
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Chicago Horticultural Society - Windy City Harvest

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

HEALTHCARE INSTITUTIONS (INCLUDING CARE DELIVERY, EDUCATION, AND INSURANCE) PCC Wellness (PCC) - Healthcare garden and VeggieRx partner Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC) - Farm on Ogden and VeggieRx partner Loyola University Health System (LUHC) - Healthcare garden and VeggieRx partner Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) - WCH partner and private insurance provider POLICY Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) - Advocate for farm-friendly policies in Chicago region, farm stakeholder group Illinois Public Health Institute (IPHI) - Advocate for healthcare policy, health equity, and stakeholder group FOOD DISTRIBUTORS Midwest Foods (MWF) - WCH employment partner, produce purchaser, and regional produce distributor FARM BUSINESSES Juan & Dulce Cedillo (CFP) - Founders, Cedillo's Fresh Produce and incubator farm graduates FORMAL EDUCATION City Colleges of Chicago, Arturo Velasquez Institute (AVI) - Farm Apprenticeship partner

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.chicagobotanic.org/urbanagriculture

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Chicago, Illinois

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Chicago Metropolitan Area (6,756 km^2)

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Founded in 2005, Windy City Harvest (WCH) is the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture division, driven by a mission to leverage the power of Chicago’s food system to address environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and community health. WCH has built its programs in partnership with more than 80 community partners, and its staff is comprised of WCH alumni, who understand the needs and assets of the communities they work within.


WCH is deeply embedded in Chicago’s food system, growing from a single farm site to its current 16. During that time, WCH built a series of programs that uplift communities by increasing food access and annually training 130 teens, 35 justice-involved individuals, 20 farm apprentices, 110 participants in continuing education.  WCH’s farm incubator supports six businesses annually with land, access to markets, pro-bono business/legal consultation, aggregation, and mentorship for up to five years.


WCH farms are located in communities with high rates of food-insecurity. As WCH trainees farm, they provide food to residents through reduced-price sales and donations. WCH produce is also sold to MWF, increasing the availability of locally grown food in Chicago. In 2016, WCH launched the VeggieRx prescription produce program. In 2019, VeggieRx partnered with PCC, LCHC, and LUHS to provided more than 18,600 pounds of produce to people with diet-related illnesses, along with weekly nutrition education and cooking lessons in both English and Spanish. Each of these partners has embraced agriculture and food access as healthcare strategies by creating healthcare gardens with WCH. In 2018, WCH opened its headquarters, the Farm on Ogden, in partnership with LCHC. The Farm is many things: a food hub, aggregating produce from 16 sites, including 6 incubator farms; a community education space; a commercial kitchen for creating value-added goods from damaged produce; and a healthy corner store that sells low cost produce and sundry goods.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Founded in 1822, Chicago rose to prominence as a hub for grain and livestock processing and distribution, a role that lasted throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, food remains a large part of Chicago’s economy. As of 2015, the city’s food manufacturing sector was the largest in the nation, employing more than 57,000 people at nearly 1,400 companies. (World Business Chicago 2017). The city is also home to 180 farmers’ markets.

Chicago and the surrounding metropolitan area is primarily urban, suburban, and peri-urban, with flat topography, rich soils, hot summers, and cold winters. Though 75% of the surrounding state of Illinois is farmland; corn and soy account for 81% of Illinois farmers’ revenues. In all, a mere 10% of food consumed in Illinois is grown here and 96% of food dollars are spent on food grown outside the state (Illinois Department of Agriculture).

Chicago’s residents are diverse. In 2010, 53% were White, 22% Latinx, 17% Black, 6% Asian, and 2% Native American or Pacific Islander (US Census Bureau); about 30% of residents speak a primary language other than English (Crain’s Chicago Business 2013). Chicagoans’ diets are incredibly varied, with cuisines from a broad spectrum of ethnicities and traditions available.

Despite Chicago’s diversity and economic prosperity, the region has long struggled with the effects of segregation, leaving an enormous gulf between the city’s wealthy and impoverished. This has led to a host of challenges for low-income Chicagoans, who are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Asian, and often live in disinvested communities. Residents may lack access to critical services including food, affordable housing, jobs, quality education, transportation, and medical care. In a city built by agriculture, many residents have no access to grocery stores and must choose from a limited selection of fast and processed foods. These conditions have led to negative health impacts, including the soaring rates of violent crime for which the city is nationally known. It has also caused an exodus of the city’s Black residents; more than 200,000 left Chicago between 2000 and 2010 (The Atlantic 2018).

“Chicago has, in addition to food security issues, a serious public health crisis,” said Steve Koch, the former deputy mayor of the City of Chicago. “This is not just a problem, but rather a major epidemic crisis of food-related diseases.” In the North Lawndale neighborhood, where WCH is headquartered, rates of diabetes are triple the national average and 41% of adults have hypertension. The result of these health disparities is devastating and deeply unjust—life expectancy in North Lawndale is nine years shorter than the average Chicagoan’s.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

17473

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

9400000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

DIETS: As previously mentioned, complex socioeconomic factors contribute to food insecurity, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle. VeggieRx participants report that healthy food is cost prohibitive and that they are unsure of how to prepare fresh produce. They also face logistical barriers, including variable work schedules and lack of transportation, that foster reliance on the convenience of prepared and processed foods that are widely available in their communities.

ECONOMICS: Though Chicago’s economy is the 20th largest in the world, vast wealth disparities have made prosperity inaccessible to a large number of inhabitants. Factory closures in the 1960s-1980s led to the loss of middle-class jobs that were not replaced, and several neighborhoods—predominantly populated by people of color—were plunged into persistent economic hardship.  Today, 20% of all residents live below the poverty line, which is perpetuated by high rates of incarceration.

POLICY: Farms and food businesses are governed by a complex matrix of federal, state, and local regulations. Understanding them requires access to subject matter experts that are often unaffordable to prospective business owners. In Chicago, policy barriers include the high-cost for access to water infrastructure and access to publically owned vacant land. Other policy challenges are related to healthcare: the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs and private insurance companies provide limited funding for interventions that address social determinants of health like food access and diet.

CULTURE: Illinois’ 75,000 farmers are 95% Caucasian and 58 years old on average, often without a younger generation to take on the family business. Ongoing urbanization has created a cultural and informational divide between consumers and food production. Challenges in the healthcare community include a predominant—though slowly shifting—culture that is prescriptive rather than preventive, due in part to the types of expenses that are covered by insurance. Coupled with this, the vast majority of physicians receive only cursory nutrition education during their training, making it difficult to incorporate diet-based strategies into their practice.

ENVIRONMENT: Conventional farming that provides most of the US food supply is chemically intensive: fertilizer and wastewater runoff pollutes groundwater and contributes to toxic algal blooms that alter aquatic ecosystems. Pesticide/herbicide use leads to vast swaths of land that contain little biodiversity, decimating native flora and fauna. Importing food carries a substantial carbon footprint, and the current shipping methods and retail standards for food contribute to massive food waste. Cities suffer from heat island effect due to a lack of greenspace. Greenspaces are also proven to provide health benefits to residents, and are often most scarce in low-income communities.

Without substantive advances in our food system, these challenges are likely to be exacerbated by 2050.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

WCH will: 1) advance opportunities for farm entrepreneurship, targeting residents of disinvested communities; 2) forge connections between farmers and healthcare providers to integrate nutrition into treatment and build healthcare gardens; and 3) address policy barriers related to farming and food access.

DIET: WCH will address food insecurity by bringing VeggieRx and healthcare gardens to scale with clinics and university health systems throughout Chicago. Our healthcare partners have more than 50 sites, and additional partnerships are in development. Scaling up the program significantly will serve a larger audience; enable innovation, such as offering programs that address specific illnesses; and create a convenient food access point. The program will also create a large, consistent, and sustainable new market for local farmers. Partners: PCC, LCHC, LUHS, CFP, MWF

ECONOMICS: WCH will provide job training, targeting ex-offenders and others with barriers to employment, helping them reintegrate into the workforce via employment partnerships with local foods businesses. The incubator program’s access to markets/aggregatrio, and free business/legal consultation will ease barriers to entrepreneurship. By growing urban farm businesses, WCH will help farmers attain a primary or secondary source of income and build prosperity for themselves and their communities. Partners: AVI, MWF

POLICY: WCH will continue working with advocacy organizations, policymakers, elected officials, and the Garden’s state and federal lobbyists to advance policies that support the expansion of urban farming. Advocacy and partnerships with private insurance companies will address issues of insurability. In support of this goal, WCH plans to partner with a university to conduct research that demonstrates the VeggieRx program’s efficacy. Partners: IPHI, AUA, BCBSIL

CULTURE: WCH’s programs will continue to change the face of farming in the region by training young farmers of color and connecting them with land in urban, suburban, and peri-urban areas. The culture of healthcare will shift as policy is advanced and physicians are trained to incorporate diet into their patient care plans, a key aspect of VeggieRx. Partners: PCC, LCHC, LUHS, CFP, AVI

ENVIRONMENT: WCH farmers learn and utilize sustainable farming methods. Aquaponics trainings build a skilled workforce for this growing industry that uses fewer chemical inputs and conserves water. Using these methods, WCH grew more than 115,000 pounds of food on just 8.4 acres in 2019. WCH farms capture storm water, do not use persistent pesticides, and rely primarily on composting for fertilization, minimizing the negative impacts of conventional methods. Farms transform vacant lots into vibrant community spaces, providing the mental and physical health benefits of greenspace. Local distribution, including on-farm markets requiring no transportation, reduces carbon emissions. Partners: AVI, MWF, PCC, LUHS, LCHC

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

WCH’s vision will shift the urban food system paradigm—over the next 30 years, we will advance the results already achieved with key partners to build a food system that promotes economic growth and ensures health equity in communities that have long experienced disinvestment. Vibrant, beautiful farms will replace overgrown and paved vacant lots, imparting new meaning to Chicago’s motto, “City in a Garden.”

After nearly 40 years building the farm workforce, the results of WCH’s training and entrepreneurship programs will change the face of farming in the region. Farmers will be representative of Chicago’s diverse population—and the food they grow will be tailored to the communities where it is distributed, creating a completely new perception of Chicago’s food system. The high visibility of farming will reconnect city dwellers to the food they eat and the small business owners that work hard to grow it.

Agriculture will provide a supplementary source of income for farmers—who farm primarily as a second job—uplifting and including people who have historically been exploited by the food system. By retaining more of Chicagoans’ food dollars in the region, this future food system builds wealth locally and concentrates it in communities most in need of economic development.


WCH, a well-known resource in the region, will connect farmers to no- and low-cost land opportunities, creating farms at clinics & hospitals, nonprofits, churches, formerly vacant lots, rooftops, and the campuses of corporate partners. These newly built farms will dramatically increase the amount of produce grown locally. Food will enter communities through the current means, including distributors, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture—but new models of food distribution will emerge. WCH and other urban farms will channel food through more than 50 clinics and hospitals in the region, transforming healthcare providers into an access point for food.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision for the future is a total transformation of Chicago. Farming will be a prominent and fresh food will be convenient, abundant, and culturally appropriate. The city, currently plagued with underutilized and vacant land, will be re-energized by verdant farms on nearly every block. As people walk down the street, they will stop at farm stands, which will replace convenience stores and fast food outlets as the most convenient place to purchase food. Most critically, disparities in health equity have been alleviated. Thanks to the abundance of affordable produce and the health benefits of greenspace itself, Chicagoans are HEALTHY, have a high quality of life, and are living longer.

--

In 2050, Mayra, who moved from her home in Chicago in 2020, returns to the city for the first time. Her friends and family—the same people who encouraged her to leave the city so long ago to find new opportunities—have lately been encouraging her to come home. Mayra has noticed that the city stopped being a national flashpoint for the conversation about gun violence long ago, but she has not returned to her neighborhood since she left. When she steps off the train, she leans over the platform’s railing to gaze out at the place where she grew up: everywhere—on rooftops, in schoolyards and churchyards, in tiny pocket farms—something is growing. Stepping down the stairs and onto the sidewalk of her old block, Mayra meets her mother, and they share a warm hug.

Together, they walk down the street and revel at the new landscape of the city, and Mayra pushes tears from her eyes. Thirty years ago, she never would have dreamed of this future for her community. Lots that were abandoned and overgrown are now tiny farms. Vines heavy with ripe fruit spill over fences and onto the sidewalk. Residents are outside, stopping at farm stands and convening over the gardens, and picking food for family dinner in the waning daylight, a time when people used to rush into their homes to avoid being outside after dark.

Mayra looks at her mom, who she’s seen a million times over the years on their frequent video chats, but it’s different seeing her in person. Years ago, Mayra almost lost her mother to diabetes—her symptoms were out of control and her medication was barely affordable. Then, the doctor at her community clinic referred her to a new, free program—VeggieRx. Every week for a few years, Mayra’s mother learned how to manage her diabetes, checked in with her clinician, and learned new ways to cook food. Most importantly, she received a meal kit every week designed specifically for people with diabetes. Even though it was difficult to muster the energy sometimes, she faithfully prepared the food each night, and her confidence grew. As the years wore on, Mayra’s mother became stronger. She was able to resume working after years of ill health that made it difficult to keep a stable job. Today, her mother is a new person; there is an ease to her movement. Mayra turns to her mother and smile. Together they walk to the corner farm stand to make a meal together for the first time in a long time.

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1) Reimagining who grows food: Our vision is of a Chicago where 40% of the produce consumed in the metropolitan area is grown within a 2 hour drive of downtown Chicago. This vision imagines reintegrating marginalized populations (formerly incarcerated, under-documented citizens, veterans) that have been excluded from the workforce and training them as urban farmers, advocates, and entrepreneurs.

How we will accomplish it: WCH will continue to prepare hundreds of people to enter the farm workforce each year, and build upon its existing incubator farm to accommodate growing interest in the program. WCH participants are primarily people of color and low-income—creating a needed infusion of young and diverse talent to re-energize agriculture. WCH farmers have an innate understanding of the food needs in their communities, and WCH cultivates this with training about the current food system and its theory of change. WCH has already placed hundreds of graduates in jobs in the food system and incubator farmers have launched seven farm enterprises after completing the program. Thirty years from today, alongside the many other farming nonprofits in the region, this new farm workforce will mirror the incredibly diverse demographics of Chicago.

2) Reimagining where food is grown: Our vision of Chicago in 2050 turns the notion of “food production is not beautiful” on its head and brings food growing to the front yards of businesses, the walls and rooftops of hospitals and health centers, and nestles it in vacant lots on blocks filled with residential homes. These farms are operated by business owners, nonprofits, and healthcare providers.


How we will accomplish it: Access to land is by far the most substantial barrier to farming in Chicago, particularly for those with no access to capital. Real estate values are prohibitively high. However, WCH has discovered that there is a vast amount of land in the region that is available to farmers through less traditional means. WCH provides land matching services, connecting small farm businesses to partners that have land available to farm. Land partners include nonprofits, indoor growing facilities, peri-urban farms, and churches. As the program grows, WCH will connect farmers to its deep network of partners, including corporations, government agencies, urban land trusts, and real estate developers.


3) Reimagining how food is distributed: Our vision imagines a Chicago 2050 where health centers are reimagined as wellness creation centers, prescribing local produce to patients as preventative medicine, with on-site healthy corner stores and food gardens just as they have on-site pharmacies. Health centers will become economic drivers for local farmers, providing guaranteed markets for the produce that is grown right down the street on formerly vacant lots. The emergency food system works with local farmers to purchase and distribute their products to their neighbors who need it the most.


How we will accomplish it: WCH is carefully and strategically expanding partnerships with community-based clinics and health systems. WCH will be a consistent presence in health equity networks and projects, forging new alliances and constantly discussing changes in healthcare delivery. Working with PCC, LCHC, LUHS, and others, WCH will provide input on VeggieRx program delivery and design, building the capacity of providers to integrate health and nutrition into their practices. Research data is already bearing results that will inspire the program’s replication: in a 2019 pilot, diabetic patients in the VeggieRx program reduced their A1C—a measure of blood sugar over time—by 1 point on a 14 point scale. These significant results will only be amplified as the program model is refined over time and WCH innovates new ways to provide healthy foods that are convenient and easy to prepare.


Other methods of distribution will grow and expand with as local produce comes to market. By aggregating produce through the Farm on Ogden and other food hubs, small farm enterprises will be able to consolidate crops and access large-scale markets. Pocket farms embedded in neighborhoods will transform the food landscape—creating access through community gardens and farm stands that are abundant and within walking distance.


4) Reimagining who eats the food: Our vision imagines a Chicago 2050 where fresh fruits and vegetables are abundantly available in all areas of the city and are viewed as the most convenient, affordable and accessible choice for consumers. Local food is currently scarce and therefore commands a high price. As local produce becomes more and more accessible, and as the means of distribution change from upscale wholesalers and vendors to community-based outlets and healthcare facilities, good food will be available to all people, regardless of socioeconomic status.


5) Reimagining policies that support a sustainable local food system for the labor force, environment, and public health. Advancing policy change is the most critical aspect of this vision. WCH will continue to build alliances and productive partnerships to advocate for policy changes. As the value and potential of urban agriculture is realized, WCH believes that policies will continue to change in favor of urban agriculture, health, and the linkage between them.

How we will accomplish it: Through its partnership with Advocates for Urban agriculture, its network of other farm enterprises in the region, and established relationships with policymakers, WCH will continue to identify barriers to urban farming and lobby for policies that facilitate farm business development. WCH will also work with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s director of government affairs to advocate for policies at the local, state, and federal level, and regularly communicates with city council representatives in the wards where its farms are located.

WCH’s strategy for addressing healthcare barriers builds on existing momentum: in 2019, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded Medicare Advantage plans to include coverage for social determinants of health, including “healthy groceries for people on medically-prescribed diets and home delivered meals for people who are immunocompromised.” WCH is currently working with IPHI to learn how healthcare providers are implementing this change, and to use research data generated by VeggieRx to make the case for insurability.

WCH also works with IPHI to discuss other potential connections between farmers and healthcare institutions, including addressing procurement policies that make it difficult for hospitals and clinics to purchase local food. WCH’s presence at this conversations helps healthcare providers understand the benefits of sourcing local produce, and also helps agriculture organizations and farmers prepare to meet the needs of large health systems.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Team (11)

Julie's profile
Eliza's profile
Eliza Fournier

Role added on team:

"Director of Programs, Windy City Harvest"

Viviana's profile

"Programs Director, Advocates for Urban Agriculture"

Lena's profile
Lena Hatchett

Role added on team:

"Director of Community and University Partnerships in the Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Chicago, and Co-Founder, Proviso Partners for Health"

Dulce & Juan's profile
Dulce & Juan Cedillo

Role added on team:

"Proprietors, Cedillo's Fresh Produce, and Windy City Harvest incubator graduates"

Angela's profile
Angela Mason

Role added on team:

"Associate Vice President, Community Outreach and Senior Director, Windy City Harvest"

Andi's profile
Andi Goodall

Role added on team:

"Program Associate, Alliance for Health Equity"

Alicia's profile
Alicia Rodriguez

Role added on team:

"Dean, Arturo Velasquez Institute - City Colleges of Chicago"

Wayne's profile
Wayne Detmer

Role added on team:

"Chief Clinical Officer of Operations, Lawndale Christian Health Center"

Amanda's profile
Amanda Brooks

Role added on team:

"Chief Population Health Officer, PCC Wellness"

Kelly's profile
Kelly Larsen

Role added on team:

"Director of Operations, Windy City Harvest"

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Team

Hi Julie, great to see another Chicago based initiative! I've always been super impressed by the work WCH has done and the recent Ogden hub is just phenomenal! We'd b interested in finding way to collaborate and bring your food and insights into the local stores. if you are ever interested in that model, please let us know. You can check out our vision here Creating an inclusive, continuous, fresh food distribution in Chicago 

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