Bumper Crop in Food Desert

Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 12:05 pm | By Luke Saunders '12

In a historic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Grinnell alumni Justin Booz ’10 and Monica Wizgird ’08 have transformed a long-vacant lot into a thriving urban garden. The Pullman neighborhood is one of Chicago’s “food deserts,” areas without ready access to grocery stores. The Cooperation Operation — founded earlier this year by Booz, Wizgird, and several other social and food justice activists from the area — works to curb hunger, promote nutritional education, and create a positive social center for Pullman residents.

The 23,000-square-foot lot where the Coop Op now grows foods such as corn, beets, cucumbers, and lettuce once was home to a paintmixing factory. The edible crops are grown in raised planters constructed of anything from cinder blocks found at the site to old boats donated from the local harbor. Many of the plants are heirlooms, and everything the garden produces is organic. The gaps in the concrete slabs were sown with wildflowers and sunflowers, which absorb toxins from the soil and beautify the space.

“This entire lot is two-and-a-half acres. On one acre, we can feed this entire neighborhood,” Booz says. “On a half-acre you can feed hundreds of people.” Residents are offered free plots and produce, but the garden does more than feed Pullman. People from the community can learn to grow their own food in the garden, becoming more self-sufficient. Using a social and ecological landscape that already existed in Pullman, Booz, Wizgird, and volunteers from their community built an empty space into a positive, sustainable center to engage and inform local residents.

Looking to the future, the Coop Op plans to keep transforming vacant areas into green spaces for educational and economic empowerment. “We’re also looking forward to becoming an official 501(c)3 within the next few months,” Wizgird says. The Pullman garden was clearly just the beginning. They’ve already raised $10,000 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Now it’s a matter of fostering further growth in their garden and their neighborhood.