On a warm Sunday morning in late July, junior Olivia Helms pushes open a heavy, metal gate. The sound of the lake echoes nearby as her and three other students file onto one of Loyola’s small urban farms on North Winthrop Avenue. They examine the crops — tomatoes, squash, radishes, swiss chard and more — before each taking several large bins into which they gently place the day’s harvest.
First started in 2011 by a group of students at Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES), around 15 students work at Loyola’s urban agriculture program each year. They learn to plant, grow and harvest themselves at several small gardens across campus: a greenhouse lab in the IES building known by students for its large aquaponics system, two rooftop gardens atop the Quinlan Life Sciences and IES buildings and one large ground-level farm on North Winthrop Avenue.
Urban agriculture is the practice of growing and selling produce within an urban area like Chicago. Popular in many metropolitan areas, urban farms can help deliver fresh food to cities that normally import food from surrounding areas.
The students work nearly year-round to ensure their harvests are fruitful, beginning in January when those who run the farms review data from the previous year to decide which varieties of produce to plant.
The students look at sales from the previous season, factoring in the flavor and amount each crop yields to determine which varieties to plant.
“It’s sort of a painstaking process just to figure out what we’re going to grow for the next year,” said Urban Agriculture Coordinator Kevin Ericson.
Once the new season’s plants are chosen and the seeds are ordered, students begin planting in the greenhouses as early as February. As the plants begin to grow, some are harvested every Sunday morning to be sold at the Loyola Farmer’s Market the next day.
“We are harvesting stuff and selling it within 24 hours,” Ericson said. “There is no food system out there that is non-localized that would be able to do that.”
Proximity to the people being fed is just one of the benefits of urban agriculture, according to Ericson. He said it can provide a fresher, healthier and better tasting product while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bringing food to low-income community members.
Making sure those who can’t normally afford healthy food have access to it is an important part of the urban agriculture program’s mission. The farmer’s market where the produce is sold accepts food stamps, known in Illinois as a Link card, and any food that isn’t sold is donated to the Food Recovery Network, a program that collects food that would otherwise go to waste and donates it to local food banks and programs where impoverished communities can access it.
But operating a small farm within the borders of the country’s third-largest city brings its own unique challenges, among them a more diverse set of needs and tastes to cater to in culturally diverse areas, space limitations and soil toxicity due to increased pollution in urban centers, according to Ericson.
Soil pollution is a significant challenge for urban farms. A recent study published in the journal Applied Geochemistry showed almost 50 percent of all samples from urban areas had higher than acceptable levels of lead.
“I would say more than half of the soil in the city is polluted beyond levels that would make it legal to grow food in,” Ericson said. “In order to address this, you can work on the front end to change policies and make sure people don’t use lead in their paint anymore … removing lead pipes, stuff like that. You have to import soil and excavate — some people are excavating two feet of soil.”
Helping communities that struggle to find healthy food to eat is another important part of the program.
More than 1.6 million Chicagoans struggle to get enough food, according to the 2016 Illinois Commission to End Hunger report. Many of the city’s poorest residents live in food deserts, areas in which residents have limited access to fresh, healthy food within about 2.5 miles, Ericson said.
Urban agriculture can help fill the gap many poor communities struggle to fill. This leads to what Helm calls “food sovereignty” — teaching people the skills to grow their own food.
“I think urban agriculture is really unique, especially in Chicago,” Helm said. “They help people become ‘food-sovereign’ because they know how to grow their own food and they can add food to their community and learn what they need to, because there’s no point in growing kale in a community that doesn’t want to grow kale.”
Urban agriculture programs like Loyola’s also present special opportunities as a social development tool. Through its many work days, volunteer programs and community outreach, the urban agriculture program is able to provide job training to community members and teach important “soft skills,” that make an employee more valuable to an employer. Many of these benefits come from the ability to literally see the fruits of one’s labor, according to Ericson.
“How many of us have jobs where we sit there at a desk and we don’t actually see the tangible results of our work?” Ericson said. “I think that’s one of the most brilliant parts about farming. There’s sort of this direct correlation between the effort you put in, the thought you put in and the results you get out. You can get success even at a very small scale — even if you’re just growing one plant, that can be seen as success.”