Urban Gardens Flourish in Chicago
Did you know nearly half of 25-year-old young adults with autism have never held a paying job? Growing Solutions Farm in Cook County is working to change that.
A program of Chicago-based organization Urban Autism Solutions (UAS), Growing Solutions Farm was built to serve its community by providing a structured work environment that allows young adults with autism and related disabilities to build upon their social and work-related skills.
“Growing Solutions Farm is a small but necessary initiative to help Chicago’s young adults with autism and related disabilities thrive in adulthood and prepare for future employment,” says Michelle Rodriguez, communications manager for Urban Autism Solutions. “At the farm, our vocational leaders teach participants how to grow crops, conduct sales, practice customer service and build confidence. It’s a communal effort to prepare them for employment. We’ve had participants go on to work and utilize the skills they learned at the farm.”
Cookfresh® Community Urban Garden Grants
One way Growing Solutions Farm has been able to achieve its mission is with the help of a Cookfresh Community Urban Garden Grant from the Cook County Farm Bureau. The farm was one of six community gardens and urban farms that received a $300 grant in 2019. Growing Solutions Farm also received the grant in 2018. Grant funds help purchase plant materials, seed, soil and gardening supplies from Cook County farm stands and greenhouse producers.
“The Cookfresh Community Urban Garden Grant enabled us to achieve our purpose,” Rodriguez says. “All the funds go directly toward tools and items utilized at the farm, which are used by participants throughout vocational training. Additionally, the grant allowed us to partner with a generous vendor, Ted’s Greenhouse, in Tinley Park. They’ve provided us with seeds and farm necessities.”
The Cookfresh Community Urban Garden Grant program has awarded 41 grants to community gardens and urban farms since the grant’s inception in 2012. In 2020, the dollar amount of the grants will increase from $300 to $350 each. In 2019, the Cook County Farm Bureau also increased the number of grants awarded from five to six gardens annually.
“The Cook County Farm Bureau hopes to grow urban community awareness of agriculture through gardening, to provide funding to meet garden goals, and to connect gardens with local member farm stand and greenhouse businesses,” says Debbie Voltz, who works on the Member Services Team of the Cook County Farm Bureau. “We also hope to increase awareness of the Cook County Farm Bureau organization among community urban gardens and to provide an avenue of partnership between gardens and local member businesses.”
Produce With a Purpose
In 2020, Growing Solutions Farm will grow an assortment of produce, including cooking greens, root crops, cucurbits, herbs, garlic, spinach, beets, carrots, basil and tomatoes, to name a few. Lead growers at the farm carefully pick the produce each growing season.
“We want Growing Solutions Farm to be a community-focused effort,” Rodriguez says. “Our goal is to sell these goods to the community, including local vendors such as restaurant owners. We’ve had the amazing opportunity to sell our produce to a Rick Bayless restaurant, Leña Brava, and we invite other restaurants and community members to join the Growing Solutions Farm initiative. Our vendors gain more than an assortment of vegetables – they gain quality produce with a purpose.”
Funds from produce sales go directly toward Urban Autism Solutions’ programs, such as the UAS West Side Transition Academy. They also donated 350 pounds of produce to charity in 2019.
Also in Chicago, El Paseo Community Garden first applied for the Cookfresh grant in 2014. Located on a former brownfield site in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, the garden’s goal is to “empower through nature.” El Paseo Community Garden unites the local community through monthly events, including an annual Harvest Festival, Halloween Haunted Garden, potluck parties and gardening workshops.
“The community garden has exploded and grown so much, and the garden continues its relationship with our member greenhouses, which assist in its growth, with or without grant awards,” Voltz says.
Clarke’s Garden Center & Stone Depot in Lynwood has also participated in the program by delivering soil and materials to grant recipients in Chicago.
“Many new community gardens have limited funding sources – for many, grant funds have provided the basic tools needed to start,” Voltz says. “Many gardens have developed ongoing relationships with the businesses where they used their initial grant funds, returning each season for garden supplies, plants and expertise.”
Back at Growing Solutions Farm, Rodriguez says one of the many rewards of working with Urban Autism Solutions is seeing the community come together to support the fair distribution of rights and benefits for their young adult participants.
“It’s heartwarming to see the connections and friendships built at the farm with people from all walks of life,” she says. “We’re really looking forward to welcoming summer, new farm participants and members of the community.”
[infobox alignment=”full” title=”How Does Your Garden Grow?”]
Are you interested in applying for a Cookfresh Community Urban Garden Grant? Applications can be found on the Cook County Farm Bureau’s website and may be completed and submitted online, emailed, mailed or faxed. The deadline for this year has passed, but you can find details and deadlines for upcoming growing seasons on the Discover Local page at cookcfb.com.
Grant awards are delivered as vouchers that can be redeemed at Cook County Farm Bureau member greenhouses, farm stands and businesses for materials identified in the grant application. Member businesses are reimbursed when vouchers are submitted.