Urban Farming that Transforms Lives
This week on Rootstock Radio, we speak with Harry Rhodes, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Growing Home. Growing Home is a Chicago-based organization whose primary mission, in Harry’s own words, is to “transform lives—both individual lives and the community—through urban farming.” This transformation is accomplished through a transitional jobs program that employs over 50 people every year, combining hands-on work and classroom time for maximum positive impact.
Growing Home serves a population that other groups and organizations often neglect: “Probably 80% of people come to us with some type of criminal record,” Harry shares, noting that there are very few programs like Growing Home for adults who are coming out of prison and re-entering society. “Giving people a real hands-on job opportunity where they can have time to become more stable and to think about what they want to do with their lives and get paid at the same time is a great recipe for transformation,” says Harry. In this way urban farming isn’t the end-goal for Growing Home, but rather a vehicle for the positive change they work to enact.
Growing Home: documentary shot photographed at the Growing Home Wood Street Farm, Chicago, IL. August 5, 2016. Photo by Andrew Collings.
Growing Home also happens to be the only USDA-certified organic production farm in the city of Chicago. “Many of the people who are recovering from substance abuse are in the process of cleaning their bodies of chemicals, so when we talk about growing food organically and having food without chemicals that really speaks to them,” says Harry of the relationship between Production Associates, as Growing Home calls their employees, and organic food.
Growing Home: documentary shot photographed at the Growing Home Wood Street Farm, Chicago, IL. August 5, 2016. Photo by Andrew Collings.
In the longer-term, Harry and the Growing Home team would like to see the south side Chicago neighborhood where their farm is located turn “from a food desert to a food destination.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home, a Chicago-based organization whose mission is to provide job training and employment opportunities in organic agriculture for people with barriers to employment. Welcome, Harry.
HARRY RHODES: Thank you. Good morning.
AOC: Nice to have you with us today. There’s so much to talk about. Growing Home has been growing home for lots of people for many years. Les Brown was the founder of Growing Home, and he once said that homeless people are often without roots. I know you expanded, you started with homeless people in your work, but this was a founding idea. Tell us about why it matters, and what does Growing Home do to help provide people with roots?
HR: Yeah, we work with people with many barriers to employment, and we find that most of them come to us from pretty unstable lives. They’ve moved around a lot. And Les, back in the ’90s, before people were even talking about urban farming, he had this crazy idea to do urban farming and job training for homeless people. He had grown up on a farm in the South and knew the transformative power of farming and growing food, and really understood homeless people—he’s one of the founders of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless—and knew that people want a job, they want to have stable lives, but a lot of things get in the way, if it’s the criminal justice system, if it’s where they’ve grown up, growing up in poverty, lack of good education, lack of skills. And giving people a real hands-on job opportunity where they can have time to become more stable and to think about what they want to do with their lives, and get paid at the same time, is a great recipe for transformation.
And then in 2001, I met Les. It was a great connection. He hired me as executive director of Growing Home before there was a program—we had some land but no program—and we started operating in 2002 and just growing food. And what we found was amazing. We found that the people really connected with it, with getting their hands dirty, with seeing something that they plant, seeing it grow, harvesting it, taking it to market. It was a great experience. And we hear from our graduates all the time—many people even describe it as a spiritual experience.
Many of the people who are recovering from substance abuse are in the process of cleaning their bodies of chemicals. So when we talk about growing food organically and having food without chemicals, that really speaks to them.
AOC: So, translating that to the people that you’re serving and the people who are actually eating this food, right, you’re getting rid of chemicals, perhaps drugs or alcohol, and you’re infusing your bodies with this really healthy, nutritious food that in some circumstances you’ve grown yourself.
HR: Yes, it’s a very powerful experience. And when it comes to urban farming it’s even more of a challenge, because those heavy metals are usually found in the soils in Chicago. And so what we’ve done on our urban farms is build up—not exactly raised beds but raised growing areas. So we bring in tons of compost and build up so that our beds are between 18 and 24 inches throughout our entire farm. And it’s all organic compost that we need to bring in from miles away—there isn’t anything in the immediate vicinity in Chicago, so it’s also one of the biggest expenses of starting an organic farm in the city, is bringing in that compost. But we find that it works, and it produces healthy, delicious vegetables.
And we also are really committed to getting good food into the communities where we work. One of the reasons we are in Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago, is because of the lack of access to good, healthy food. And we were invited in by that community, which was looking at—they were planning for the future. They were working on a quality-of-life plan back in 2005. And they said they want access to healthy, good food, they need job training and they need jobs, and came up with this idea of doing an urban agriculture district. And many people say, “Well, why organic? Organic’s expensive, and people on the South Side or people in poor neighborhoods can’t afford organic.” I think Sonia Harper, who used to work with us, and she lives in Englewood, she’s now a state representative, has said people can’t afford not to eat organic food.
AOC: Yeah. Right, it’s a pay-now-or-pay-later kind of situation, isn’t it?
HR: Yep. She said she personally—and to hear it from her is really powerful—personally has seen the health problems of people in her family, people who have died from health problems at an early age, and she believes it’s because of the food that they’ve been eating and the access to that food. And so it may be somewhat more expensive to have organic food, but it’s crucial for the health of all people. And we shouldn’t be in a situation where we’re saying only wealthy people should have access to good food.
AOC: Right. This is one of the challenges of organic food and the food system, is that a lot of the so-called cheap food is subsidized by the government, and so that ends up being cheap food. It’s also sometimes nutritionally inferior food. So it’s kind of a relearning, isn’t it? Like what do you invest in up front so that you have your health as you go on down the road? And sometimes it’s harder to make that up-front investment.
So we’ve been talking a bit about farming. I know that farming is really a vehicle for you, and not your primary mission. Can you talk to us about what Growing Home does and what the primary mission is of your organization?
HR: So our primary mission is to transform lives, both individual lives and the community, through urban farming. And we do that through a transitional jobs program, where we train a little over 50 people every year. And it’s not just a one-month job training program, go out and get a job, but it’s a real hands-on job experience. People come and they work with us, very intensive setting, for 14 weeks. They get paid minimum wage, which in Chicago is now $10.50 an hour, going up to $11 an hour in July.
Just an aside, the city told us that we didn’t have to pay that. We could pay the state minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, but we really believe in paying people as much of a fair wage as possible. And so we took on to pay that minimum wage, even though it costs us more.
And so people come, they get a real holistic experience working at the farm. They come, starting in April, they see the whole process of preparing the beds, taking care of nurturing the plants, seeing them grow, and then taking them to market. And it’s a fast-paced experience, it’s a fast-paced environment. There’s a lot of transferable skills that people learn. Most of the people aren’t going to go on to be farmers, although some have gone to work at some newer indoor farms in Chicago. But most of them get enough experience that they’re trained to work throughout the food chain in Chicago. So everything from the few indoor farms that exist to warehouses. There’s a great business called Local Foods, which does distribution of local foods—they’ve been one of our best employer-partners—to different restaurants, locally owned restaurants, as well as some grocery stores. Whole Foods has hired some of our graduates.
And their skills are transferable. They’re not just growing the food—they’re also taking it into our processing area and processing it and preparing it for market. So they’re really learning, in those 14 weeks, learning all about food. And we also, in addition to the work they’re doing, we have classroom time where they’re learning job-readiness skills. We work with Loyola University on a program called “Transforming Impossible into Possible,” and it’s really about giving people the time to be introspective, to look at their lives and figure out how to improve those lives and change those lives.
We have a case manager who works one-on-one with each of our production assistants—since we give them jobs, we call them production assistants—works with each person and comes up with their own plan for what they want to do with their lives and how they’re going to get there.
AOC: So one of the things that is your job-training model is you’re kind of retraining the production assistants in several areas. And I see, you know, on your website you talk about each week these job readiness skills are like motivation and communication, responsibility, professionalism, emotional intelligence, performance, networks, and mentorship. So you have this really laid out, and this isn’t really about how the farm works or how the plants grow or what you need to do to the soil, but this is really about their internal strengthening.
HR: Yes. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing to watch when the people come in, and the first week I always meet with them and talk about what they want to do, and they’re saying, “Well, I want a job.” Okay, and what are you good at? What do you really want to do? “Well, I’m not sure I want a job. I want to make money.” And most of the people haven’t been told “yes” before. They’ve been told what they can’t do and what they’re not good at. And they’ve been put down so much they believe it, so they just think they’ll go and get a job, they’ll make some money, and then go from one job to the other.
And when they come to us we say “yes.” We say, “You’re talented. Let’s figure out what those talents are and what you want to do with your life.”
AOC: Right, and what a profound statement, right? Everybody’s hungry for that. Everybody wants to be successful, right?
HR: Yeah, and then you come to our graduation, which is a very emotional experience, and everyone gets a chance to talk. And they said they’ve never been in a situation like this. First of all, they’re graduating, which is a big accomplishment; many of them are not high school graduates. And secondly, the support they got from day one kind of blows people away, that it’s very intensive. There’s one staff on every four PAs, four production assistants. And people listen to them, and people are supportive of both the good, bad, and the ugly, and willing to accept them for who they are.
AOC: Do you have a favorite story? Do you have a favorite meaningful story about one of those ways that you’ve helped an individual or a part of the community?
HR: Lots of stories. I would say Gloria Carter is one of my favorites, just because she graduated, she went through the program, in 2003, when I really got to know our production assistants really well. And she struggled—she had been separated, she had been in prison, she had been separated from her family. And afterwards, she’s been on a terrific path, terrific trajectory. One day she was on the street and she saw someone familiar. It was her son that she hadn’t seen in years. And they reconnected and have stayed connected ever since, and she’s reconnected with her grandchildren as well.
And now she has moved—she was in transitional housing after our program. And she’s also a chef, she also worked some in a café. She’s done a lot. And she’s stayed in touch with us—she loves everything that she learned with Growing Home, and she’s always wanted to give back. She started her own not-for-profit organization that works with women coming out of prison and helps them, using the lessons she’s learned. And today she’s living on her own and she’s a case manager with another organization, and she’s doing terrific.
Many stories like that. It’s just a very…makes it very worthwhile to see the changes in people and to hear from them personally.
AOC: Yeah, it’s very inspiring, right? I mean, that’s fantastic when people have a real shot at creating the life that they want for themselves.
HR: Another just piece I want to touch on is when we started in 2006, we were the first farm that moved into Englewood. There was a lot of vacant lots, but we were the first one to get started and really a catalyst for change. And we established our certified organic farm, which is billed the only certified organic production farm in the city of Chicago. And we thought immediately, when we put up our farm stand and offer SNAP, offer food stamps, that everyone’s going to come because everybody said—
AOC: That’s what they wanted.
HR: —this is what they want. And it didn’t happen. It wasn’t, “If you build it they will come” didn’t really happen. We needed to do a lot of outreach work. And a few years later we got a grant from the USDA to do that outreach work, to hire an outreach worker. And we started doing educational programs and workshops and cooking demonstrations, and created what we called our Wednesdays at Wood Street, which wasn’t just a farm stand but it was an event, it was a happening. People would come there, it was a safe space in the community, which is crucial in this community that’s been wracked by violence. And people would come to the farm stand, to the cooking demonstrations, for free tours. It was exciting to see the change and to see that people really wanted this. And quickly, the number of people at our farm stand increased; I think within two years there were six times the number of people coming to the farm stand.
AOC: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the things that we’ve just seen over and over again, is people have forgotten how to cook. They don’t actually know how to use fresh produce. They want it, in some reaches of their mind, they know, right, but they don’t quite know how to do it.
HR: Yeah, I’ve heard grocery stores face similar challenges. And they say, okay, to solve the food desert problems we need to bring in grocery stores. So they come in, and the grocery stores fail if they don’t have an education and a community outreach component.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and today we’re talking about urban agriculture and food access and helping people pick the life that they want to live, with Harry Rhodes of Growing Home in Chicago.
Harry, what do people need to understand about the challenges that your program is helping people overcome, and what are the misperceptions that you find people hold?
HR: Oh, yeah, there’s many misperceptions. One is criminal backgrounds, criminal records. We have probably 80 percent of people come to us with some type of criminal record, everything from an arrest record, which stays on your record—whether you’ve been guilty or not, the arrest stays there—to violent criminals. We’ve had people who have committed first-degree murder come through our program.
And there’s many businesses or housing agencies—I was talking to someone yesterday from a housing agency who said, “Oh, we’ll never take people who have committed violent crimes.” And some people who have been most successful in our program have committed violent crimes. They served their time and they’re ready to make a change. And someone who’s 35 or 40 and is ready to make that change, there’s a lot more potential that that person will succeed if given the chance than someone who’s 19 or 20 and hasn’t quite learned the same lessons that this person has learned. And yet many employers, many housing agencies, say “Violent crimes? We won’t take this person. If this person has a felony background within the last seven years, we won’t take that person.” Just blanket “We won’t take this person,” without considering the needs of that person and the capabilities of that person.
AOC: Right, so this is a glitch in our criminal justice system, of which there are many. But this idea that you serve your time—like you do the crime, you serve the time, and then what? There doesn’t appear to be any “then what.”
HR: Yeah, and then people commit a crime again. I’ve talked to people who said, “Well, I was looking for a job for six months. If I don’t find something soon, I’ll have to rob the food so I can eat.”
AOC: Right, or go back to selling drugs, because it’s an income that is secure, and you know you can get income that way.
HR: Yeah, and then you have a recidivism rate over 50 percent, of people who go back to prison within three years. Our recidivism rate, difficult to track, but I would say it’s somewhere around 10 percent of people who go back. And often they go back because of some parole violation or something technical. It’s not that they’ve committed a crime–it’s, there’s a lot of stumbling blocks that are put in the way of people as they try to make those changes.
AOC: Okay, so I get that. And also, I get why people are afraid. I get why people are like, “Well, I don’t know if I want to have this person who’s committed this violent crime in my apartment building.” So how do you walk people through that process?
HR: Just a matter of talking to people and educating them, and saying, and showing research and statistics that people who have committed violent crimes, when given support and given the opportunity, they won’t commit that crime again—especially people who are a bit older. We work with people often that others don’t work with. So there’s a lot of programs out there for youth, and there need to be more, of course, but there are very few working with adults when they get out of prison, when they’re coming back into society.
And so trying to educate those organizations, work with them. We worked last year with Whole Foods, and they had a policy saying violent criminals, we can’t accept any violent criminals. And they’ve changed that policy, at least for their Englewood store, their new store nearby, and say they’ll look at things on a case-by-case basis. But there’s very little chance that someone who had committed a violent crime using a gun is going to come to work with his gun and shoot someone. It just, the research shows that doesn’t happen.
Yeah, I do understand that if you’re not there and you just hear that somebody committed a violent crime, it can be scary. But if you try to open up a little bit and hear about their experience, often that violent crime, usually it was gang related and it was when someone was younger.
AOC: So Harry, Growing Home has been in Englewood since 2002. And you know, you just mentioned the Whole Foods opening in Englewood. What kind of changes have you seen there, and what kind of impacts do you feel that Growing Home has had on the community there that, as you mentioned, has seen violence and had hardship for a long time?
HR: There’s so much good happening in that community, and that’s one of the sad things is you don’t hear about the good things happening. There is a community, there is dedicated people who are working on the good things in their community. So this idea of an urban agriculture district was to create a large number of farms on vacant lots. Today we have two farms and there’s two other farms; there’s a terrific community garden nearby. So there’s food being grown. And as soon as…all the research has shown that when you take the vacant lots and you create green space, that also helps cut down on the violence in that community. So that’s been a huge change.
In addition, there’s an independent café, Kusanya Café, that opened up a few years ago, where people go, just like any café in an upscale neighborhood, and they can get their coffee, they can use WiFi, they go there for meetings. It’s a terrific place. And then Whole Foods opened, and not just Whole Foods but there’s a Starbucks and Chipotle in the same area. So if the farms are creating tens of jobs, the Whole Foods and that whole development created another 200 jobs, in a community where jobs are so scarce and most of the people who graduate have to go work somewhere else and work outside their community, because the jobs aren’t there.
So slowly, slowly, we’ve seen really positive changes. We’ve seen that Englewood, one of the goals was to turn it from a food desert to a food destination, and we believe, in the next ten years, that’s really going to happen. And that’s really going to create thousands of jobs for the community that’s so in need of that. And that’s how change is going to come about. It’s still a struggle with the violence, and that’s something, I think, the jobs and the improved education are the best ways to cut down on that violence. But that’s going to take time. That’s not going to happen overnight.
AOC: Well, Harry, thank you so much for all the work that you and Growing Home are doing there in Chicago. If our listeners wanted to learn more about your work and Growing Home, where should they go?
AOC: Harry, thank you for joining us today.
HR: Thanks so much for having me.
AOC: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. We’ll see you next week.