More than 11% of Cook County’s residents will face food insecurity this year, according to a report by the Greater Chicago Food Depository released this summer, meaning over 600,000 people may not be able to get affordable nutritious food on a regular basis to get. Evanston Grows, a newly formed collective, aims to tackle this problem head on by providing direct access to fresh local produce grown in a growing network of community food gardens across the city.
Evanston Grows has a simple goal, according to Jean Fies, one of its 12 founding members: “To create more edible gardens in Evanston to combat food insecurity and health equity. That sums it up. ”Since it was founded in April, the young organization, to which the lead co-founders Susan Trieschmann and Lisa Zschunke belong, has revitalized several existing gardens and helped create four new community gardens.
Perry Park’s neighbors will gather for Construction Day on May 15th and begin construction of the West End Garden. (Photo by Monica Fox)
The recently renovated Fleetwood Garden now produces around 40 pounds each week during the April through October growing season. Volunteers harvest crispy kale, plump aubergines, tender beans, ripe tomatoes, fragrant herbs and more on Mondays and Tuesdays and invite neighbors to participate in the bonus during the weekly distribution. Unclaimed overflow from other community gardens is also directed to the Fleetwood distribution location to ensure nothing is wasted.
Kenneth Cherry, Leisure Manager at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, said garden food is a tremendous asset, but the neighborhood is reaping other benefits as well.
“People enjoy the communal aspect of the garden,” he said, “and the fact that there are fresh vegetables is the sauce on the potatoes.” Cherry said the green space full of growing plants and buzzing pollinators is also a visual treat . “Evanston Grows,” he said, “has created a really sustainable program.”
Residents of the nearby Emerson Square Apartments, one of Evanston Grows’ four new gardens, will also enjoy quick access to fresh vegetables this season. At the urging of Denise Johnson, one of the residents of the complex, Fies helped plant a productive edible garden last spring.
“The raised beds were already there when we entered the picture,” said Fies, “but they were full of weeds. They fell apart and there was no water so we worked with the manager. ”He agreed to provide access to water so that the garden could be tended.
Johnson, who said she had no previous gardening experience, has got her hands dirty all season and is delighted with the delicious results. “I didn’t even really eat vegetables before,” she said with a laugh. “I eat the spinach and the cherry tomatoes and the kale and the mustard greens, so my iron has improved. It helps me all around. ”
New friendships are an additional positive return from the garden. “I met three neighbors I didn’t know before,” said Johnson. “We all got together and worked in the garden together. I really enjoy being outside and getting to know other people. “
Cindy Pope, another Emerson Square resident, also appreciates the connection to the community and the fresh tomatoes. “I have an autistic son who lives with me and who loves tomatoes,” said Pope. “Every day I go and pick a few for him and it really makes him happy.” This is also the Pope’s first experience of puttering in a garden. “I’ve always wanted that,” she said, “but I’ve always lived in apartments and never had a place to garden. It is wonderful.”
Friday evenings are the official harvest time at Perry Park’s West End Garden, but fresh produce can be harvested throughout the week. (Photo by Monica Fox)
In Perry Park on Hovland Court, a garden planted this spring in conjunction with Evanston Fight for Black Lives is all about food and healing too. Resident and school teacher Kristin Huzar explained the origins of the West End Garden.
“There was a shooting on our street last March and two of our young men were killed in broad daylight while everyone was doing e-learning at home,” she recalls. “And so the neighbors united. It started as a meeting to talk about the violence and what we could do, and it sort of got to, ‘We have to build a community.’ “
The group met with representatives from Evanston Grows, who volunteered to help Perry Park’s neighbors implement a community garden plan that would help re-establish a sense of connectedness in the neighborhood.
“Now we have this amazing garden,” said Huzar. “We all do volunteer work there. It was a place to bring us together. For some of the younger children in the area it was great to see how food grows and where our food comes from. ”Huzar praised the efforts of the Evanston Grows collective. “You have added a lot of wealth to our neighborhood.”
Dempster Street Women’s Housing now has two raised beds at the back of the building, built with the help of the Appalachian Service Project and maintained by the residents with the help of an Evanston Grows volunteer. The products are harvested each week and left in the lobby for distribution. Fies said a woman noticed this was the first time she had tried vegetables freshly picked from a garden.
Evanston Grows is also working with St. Nicholas Church to remodel the church’s existing gardens. Fies sees the project as another way of offering local residents fresh products. “One of her beds was just flowers. We put some herbs and a few plants in it. We’ll find out what they want and work with them to grow more food. “
Fies said Evanston Grows is committed to supporting any religious organization, community group, or school that wants to plant a garden or needs help with the maintenance of an existing garden. The collective can provide educational support and volunteers, as well as help with product distribution.
According to Fies, at least four more edible gardens are in sight for next year. Evanston Grows will be putting their gardens to bed later this month, but a recent $ 15,000 grant from the Evanston Community Foundation means plans for gardens at Mason Park, Robert Crown Community Center, Erie Health Center, and one more Evanston Park grounds can be continued that has yet to be determined. With a $ 3,000 grant from the Whole Kids Foundation, the organization plans to buy or build a portable farm stand for use at distribution locations.
Evanston Grows’ first official educational event, The Big Garden Wrap-Up, takes place on Sunday October 24th, rain or shine. Fies shows how to prepare beds for the winter months and how to plant garlic and onions now to enjoy them in the coming growing season.
The event on October 24th is free and open to the public in the following locations:
- 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Fleetwood-Jourdain Garden, 1655 Foster St.
- 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Emerson Square Garden, 1580 Foster St.
- 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the West End Garden in Perry Park, 1741 Hovland Court