One unnamed Austin resident stood mesmerized by garlic stalks she at first confused for knobs of onion.
“This is fresh garlic! I’ve never seen fresh garlic. I didn’t know how it grew before seeing it up close,” she said, while her friend brooded on potential recipes.
“I can put in my spinach,” the friend said.
The two women weren’t in the produce section of Whole Foods or at the Andersonville Farmers Market; they were in Austin at the PCC Austin Produce Market, a farm stand and urban green space operated by PCC Community Wellness, a nonprofit community health center that services residents in some of the city’s most underserved locales.
The 8,000-square foot space at 330 N. Lotus is an oases in Austin, which the U.S. Department of Health Resources and Services Administration has designated a food desert — or a place where getting to fresh produce and raw meat means traveling relatively long distances, often outside of one’s neighborhood.
A 2006 report by the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group and the National Center for Public Research “measured the distance from the geographic center of each of the city’s 18,888 inhabited blocks and found that not only do residents living in majority African American blocks travel the farthest on average to reach any type of grocery store — 0.59 miles as opposed to 0.39 miles for majority-white blocks or 0.36 miles for Latinos — but they must travel twice as far to reach a grocery store as a fast-food restaurant,” according to a 2009 Chicago Magazine article highlighting the report.
Gallagher identified three different areas in the city covering a total of 44 square miles where independent groceries, chain stores, farmers markets and urban farms were startlingly too few and far between — an expanse joining the Near North Side with the neighborhoods of Lawndale and Austin was one of them.
The Austin garden is the result of a partnership between PCC and Windy City Harvest and a $350,000 grant from the Humana Foundation. The garden was started last November and opened two months ago. Construction of a green house on the premises is nearly complete.
“We have four garden beds for people in the neighborhood to plant — they each get half a plot to grow whatever they want. They maintain it, plant it, weed, water, harvest what they grow. There are also production beds that we grow for the farm stand and to include in produce boxes for the WIC program,” said Brittany Calendo, the farm’s seasonal coordinator.
Lucia Flores, the farm’s program manager, anticipates the garden will yield somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of organic produce this year. That includes fresh green garlic, spinach, arugula, baby carrots, lettuce and radish. All of it organically grown without the use of chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers.
After it’s grown, the produce is priced at market value and sold on the farm stand to area residents and health-conscious eaters who come to the garden from other neighborhoods.
“Windy City has a pricing scale for all the produce that’s grown and we price all our produce on the lower end of the scale, which makes it affordable for the community,” Flores said.
Baby carrots are $2 a bunch, kale is $1 a bunch, lettuce is $2 a head, collard greens are $1 a bunch — all of it purchasable with SNAP benefits. Whatever doesn’t sell gets donated to the nuns at Fraternite Notre Dame, 502 N. Central Ave. The women cook dinners and breakfasts daily for the homeless and people in transitional housing.
“We look at this like a prescription for healthy eating,” said Flores. “We want to give people a prescription for fresh produce to eat things we’re telling them to eat at the health center.”
Farm stand shoppers can receive free recipes along with the fruits and vegetables they buy — an idea rooted in PCC’s concept of educating through exemplary actions instead of words, Flores said.
“Habits are built over a lifetime,” she said. “It takes people a long time to develop them and it will take an even longer time to reframe how they think about food. It’s not a one-time thing. It takes time, so we educate at the clinic and continue that education out here. It’s about behavioral change. We’re not here to vilify or judge what people choose, we’re just trying to create more choices.”
Flores said she hopes that in the next few years, the garden can be operated by Austin residents who have completed training through Windy City’s 9-month sustainable urban agriculture apprenticeship program.
“PCC is sponsoring two students, providing two scholarships, to people from Austin to go through the 9-month program and hopefully in four years, take over the seasonal coordinator position at this farm site and become an employee so we can have someone from the community overseeing the operation.”
“There’s a big need for people with experience and knowledge in different green industries,” Calendo said. “We’re opening an avenue for people who may not have seen themselves gardening or farming before. The good thing with this being here is that it allows people to imagine themselves working and participating in the green economy more easily. So to have this be visible, something that people can walk past every day, is really important.
Jacob Hostetter, 29, a Windy City intern who is currently going through the 9-month program, said Austin has already taken ownership of the space.
“A lot of people walk in here and get excited,” said the North Side resident. “None of us who work here are from this neighborhood. You don’t want to be doing a project in someone else’s neighborhood that’s not appreciated aby the residents. But the woman who lives in the house next to us, a person who lives over there, in that building over — all of them are invested in this.”