On a bright, sunny Saturday in June, more than 1,500 people came to see just what was happening inside the renovated paint store along Ogden Avenue in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago.
It was the opening weekend for the Farm on Ogden, a joint project between the Chicago Botanic Garden and Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC) that brings food, health, and jobs together under one roof. Visitors explored the 7,300-square-foot greenhouse, marveled in the blue-purple glow of the 50,000-gallon aquaponics system, and picked up vegetables grown in the corner Windy City Harvest Youth Farm.
Autumn Berg, a North Lawndale resident for 17 years, could barely contain her emotions. “I’ve never been more excited about my neighborhood in my life,” she said.
The day before, Garden President and CEO Jean M. Franczyk thanked the many donors and partners for their generous support and steadfast belief that growing food locally makes for healthier individuals and communities. Speakers included Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Alderman Michael Scott, Jr. (24th).
“For a corner that needs economic development, it’s everything a community could ask for. I’m just so happy the Garden has decided to invest in a community like North Lawndale,” said Scott.
Here’s a look inside the Farm, which will be managed by Windy City Harvest, the Garden’s urban agriculture program, in partnership with LCHC.
At Windy City Harvest Youth Farm, our young workers are exposed to nutrition in ways that relate directly to their work. As the season progresses, new crops are harvested and introduced to our staff.
A lot of these are vegetables they have never eaten or seen before.
They also are surprised at the nutritional benefits in some of these vegetables. Here are three vegetables we are harvesting at Windy City Harvest that are nutrition powerhouses:
They grow easily and can be used in many dishes. Scallions, or green onions, are never the centerpiece of a meal. They are pungent and crisp, and most often are used as a garnish or topping.
Scallions are a part of the allium family, meaning it can call the garlic, onion, and leek its brothers and sisters. Like other alliums, scallions contain special properties like organosulfur compounds and allyl sulfides, as well as thiosulfinates. Those are complicated words, but what they mean is that these compounds are being studied for their effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, and cancer. Most importantly, they taste great on everything from mashed sweet potatoes to chicken tacos.
The nutritional reputation of potatoes has suffered due to their high carbohydrate content. However, potatoes can be very nutritious. An especially nutritious potato variety is the purple potato. Purple potatoes taste like other potatoes, but they have an undeniable rich purple color. This is because they are abundant in the antioxidant flavonoid anthocyanin. This is the same flavonoid, or plant pigment, that colors blueberries and pomegranates.
Here’s how antioxidants are thought to work: Reactive and unstable molecules called free radicals enter our bodies when we inhale cigarette smoke, breathe polluted air, or even eat an unhealthy diet. Antioxidants bind to them and make them less reactive.
Purple potatoes also contain high amounts of of potassium, even more than bananas. Potassium is important to counteract the effects of a high-sodium diet.
Purple potatoes are a welcome upgrade from the common russet potato. Just don’t deep fry them.
#3—Red Bell Peppers
Red bell peppers can be crisp and crunchy when raw or savory and sweet when cooked. Green bells are not a unique variety of pepper. They are the same variety as red peppers, but they are picked before ripening. When you let this vegetable ripen to its full potential, the nutrient content increases.
Red bell peppers are best known for their powerful antioxidant properties. Just one pepper contains twice the daily requirement for Vitamin C, making bell peppers one of the richest foods for Vitamin C. Vitamin C helps grow and repair tissues in the body and helps the body absorb iron. The Vitamin A content comes in at a close second in this sweet pepper. Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyes, skin, and neurological function. One pepper gives you about three-fourths of your daily Vitamin A needs.
Red bell peppers also feature their own flavonoid antioxidant. Just like the purple potatoes, this antioxidant is responsible for the vegetables’ brilliant red color. A colorful plate is truly a healthy plate.
When I asked Ryan Hutchinson what nutrition fact he was most surprised about, he said, “I was shocked that foods like scallions could help lower blood pressure and can be preventative. My auntie had to go to the hospital for high blood pressure so it was good information to have.”
When asked if he had tried any of the veggies from the farm, Caleb Peacock said,”Yeah, all the time. This week, for dinner, my dad made a ‘symphony of squash.’ It had bell peppers, carrots, summer squash, zucchini, and onions cooked in a pressure cooker. It was good! My whole family liked it and went back for seconds…My dad also made zucchini pancakes. They were better than regular pancakes because the zucchini made them super moist.”
Shayna Jackson’s family has incorporated veggies from the farm, too. “I was most surprised by the garlic and scallions. I didn’t know they were healthy. Last week, I took a box of vegetables home from the farm. It was the first time my mom cooked with scallions. We liked them so much that we went to buy more from the store. We had never had them before.”
Shekinah Price said, “I was surprised that red bell peppers have more vitamin C than oranges.”
At Windy City Harvest Youth Farm, we harvest something seasonal and fresh every week. And every week we harvest something healthy. If you are interested in trying scallions, purple potatoes, or red peppers while meeting our bright youth, come visit Windy City Harvest at our community markets.
Demi Maropoulos is a bachelor of science student in the Coordinated Nutrition Program at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Demi is in the midst of completing her supervised practice hours in order to become a registered dietitian. Cooking, gardening, and farming is what brought Demi to the profession of dietetics, so it is only fitting that she worked with Windy City Harvest for her community nutrition internship.
Thank you to Conagra Brands Foundation for supporting Windy City Harvest Youth Farm’s healthy eating initiative.
‘Tis the season for the harvest bounty at Windy City Harvest! Our staff and program participants are busy harvesting our final summer crops: peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant; and early fall crops: kale, carrots, and cabbage.
This harvest season we are excited to unveil our new cookbook, Cooking in Season with Windy City Harvest. This cookbook is a collection of our favorite seasonal recipes and features the fresh produce grown and harvested at our farms transformed into healthy dishes by our program participants, staff, and local chefs.
Our program has been lucky to develop wonderful partnerships with local chefs and restaurants. Many of these chefs, including Cleetus Friedman, executive chef and creative chef for Caffé Baci; and John des Rosiers, chef/proprietor of Inovasi, Wisma, and The Otherdoor, have generously shared seasonal recipes that feature Windy City Harvest produce.
Just like planting seeds and harvesting the bounty, cooking is an essential component of the Windy City Harvest program. Program participants learn how to cook with produce grown on the farms, sometimes using fruits and vegetables that may be unfamiliar to them. The participants then share their newfound culinary skills with their communities, whether trading recipes with market customers, providing cooking demonstrations at local WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) clinics, preparing multicourse lunches for their peers, or showcasing their dishes at our annual Open House celebrations.
One of our favorite fall recipes is a grilled kale salad.
Grilled Kale Salad Preparation: 15 to 30 minutes. Serves: 6 to 8
3 pounds (about 4 bunches) toscano kale, washed and dried
½ cup vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for bread
2 garlic cloves, cut in half
½ loaf of sourdough bread (cut into ¾-inch thick slices)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Preheat the grill to high. Stack the kale and cut off the thick end of the stems about 3 inches from the end of the leaf. Compost the stems. In a large bowl or large plastic bag, toss the kale with ⅓ cup of the vegetable oil and salt, until the leaves are evenly coated with oil.
Rub each slice of bread with a garlic clove half. Drizzle the remaining oil on the bread. Grill the bread slices until golden brown with nice grill marks on each side. Set aside. Grill the kale leaves until crispy and cooked—about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. Dice the grilled bread into croutons, and julienne the kale into bite-size pieces. Place the mixture in a large bowl.
To make the dressing, combine the minced garlic with the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt in a Mason jar. Tighten the lid and shake the jar vigorously to combine the ingredients. Pour the dressing over the kale and bread, and toss the mixture to coat. Add the feta and toss again. Transfer the salad to a serving platter or bowl.
The Garden’s head of urban agriculture took a trip to Cuba and reminded me of my culture’s resiliency and connection to gardening.
How do you farm when you have little to no resources? Cubans “inventan del aire.”
Literally meaning “inventing from air,” this is the philosophy that is required to get by in Cuba.
Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and Windy City Harvest, traveled to Cuba to see firsthand how the farmers there create and maintain collective farms. These farms provide much-needed produce for a population that lives without what we’d consider the basics in the United States. The average hourly wage in the Chicago area is around $24.48. That’s more than the average monthly wage in Cuba.
“Before going, I didn’t understand why people would risk their lives getting on a raft and floating 90 miles,” she said. “But when you see the degree of poverty that some of the people are living in, it’s heartbreaking.”
Angie recounted to me the details of her trip; the people she met, all of whom were welcoming and warm, and the places she saw. She visited several farms just outside of Havana and another in Viñales, in the western part of the country.
Poverty in Cuba means the farmers there grow without supplies and tools that are standard here. But they are still able to create beautiful and sustainable harvests through ingenuity. For example, Angie asked one of the farmers she met what he used to start seeds. He showed her dozens of aluminum soda cans that he’d cut in half. One farmer dug a well by hand. He then used the rocks he dug out to build a terraced garden.
I asked Angie many questions about her trip and what she saw, because I relish every detail I can learn about Cuba, the country where both of my parents were born.
The reasons for Angie’s trip felt especially close to my own family’s heritage, because I come from a long line of farmers on both sides. My mother’s family had a farm in the province of Matanzas. My father’s side did as well, in the more rural province of Las Villas. Both properties have since been seized by the Cuban government, as was all private property after the revolution in 1959. Neither one of my parents has been back to visit since they moved to the United States as children (my father was just a few years old and my mother was 11) so the stories they can share are scarce. The only tangible evidence of childhoods spent in the Cuban countryside are a handful of faded photographs: my mom riding a horse when she was in kindergarten; my father in diapers and running around with farm dogs. And as each year passes, the memories of Cuba are farther and farther in past.
Two of my grandparents, both now deceased, had many stories to share with me as well. My maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother were fixtures in my life and both often shared stories of their lives before the United States and growing plants and food in the fertile Cuban soil. It’s a talent that apparently never leaves a person, even if they change their country of residence, because both had beautiful backyard gardens at their homes in Miami.
My grandmother had a knack for flowers. The bougainvillea in her yard was always resplendent. Hydrangeas were the centerpieces at my sister’s wedding shower; months later the plant repotted and cared for by my grandmother was the only one that thrived. My grandfather leaned more toward the edible. His yard was full of fruit trees. Whenever he’d visit, he usually brought something growing in the yard: fruta bomba (more commonly known as papaya), mamoncillos, or limon criollo (a type of small green lime).
Growing up, I always associated the cultivation of plants, whether flowers or fruit, as just a part of their personalities. Gardening was a hobby they enjoyed. While that was true, I realized later that it was also an activity that kept them connected to Cuba. As long as they could grow the plants they remembered from back home, that life was not completely gone.
My grandparents, as well as parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and pretty much most people I’m related to, have all tapped into their resiliency to make it as immigrants in the United States and adapt to their changed lives. The same personality trait that allows a Cuban farmer to grow vegetables without any tools has gotten my family through decades of living outside of Cuba. No matter the situation, members of the Cuban diaspora “inventan del aire.” It’s how people survive in Cuba, but it’s also how Cubans outside of the country get through exile.