Photos by Brenda E. Becerra
Past vacant lots and urban concrete stands a quarter-acre garden of healthy produce. Strawberries, squash, basil, cucumbers and other crops grow as a sign of aspiration in one of Chicago’s most oppressed neighborhoods. Each summer, about 35 high school students put their hands to work in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm at 3539 W. Ogden Ave., in North Lawndale. The Botanic Garden sponsors two other farms in the city.
Since the program’s initiation in 2003, the farm has given the North Lawndale teens a summer job and a chance to learn the value of organic farming.
“Some of the things we grow here, I’ve never even thought about eating,” said Sharice Lee, 18, as she finished watering some plants.
Lee, an enrolling freshman at Northeastern Illinois University, was among about 20 teenagers, ages 15 to 18, at the farm on a recent afternoon. Working between mid-May and mid-October, up to four days a week, the students earn a four-figure stipend.
The benefits for the teens far outweigh the wages they earn. For one, the students learn how crops get from the farm to the table, said Eliza Fournier, manager of school and community gardening at the Botanic Garden. Every Tuesday, the North Lawndale teens take what they have grown to use in weekly cooking sessions with another group of students at the North Chicago Farm. They have made chicken salad among other dishes this summer.
Fournier said the final lesson every summer is: “It prepares them to be leaders in school and in future jobs.”
On a recent hot morning, the sun was bright as kids with dirty hands worked vigorously as a team. Some students watered the plants on raised beds. Others picked out the ripe crops, such as red delectable strawberries. Another group welcomed and attended customers buying fresh produce from their market stand.
“When you work here, they want you to try everything you grow, harvest and plant,” said Kameesha Thomas, a freshman at Collins Academy High School.
After each planting season, the group’s work serves as a beacon in a neighborhood with lots of vacant lots but rarely any gardens. Last fall, the North Lawndale Green Youth Farm won first place in the city’s Landscape Awards, which honors Chicagoans who help make the city more environmentally friendly.
The greatest compensation for Clifton Coleman, 18, an incoming freshman at Chicago State University, has always been helping his community. Coleman has been volunteering at the garden for three years.
“What I enjoy about the program is that it’s different,” he said while selling fresh produce in a farmers market stand outside the garden. “What’s so different about it is that you do things that you wouldn’t normally see a teen doing.”
Green Youth Farmhttp://www.chicago-botanic.org/greenyouthfarm