GROW screening 10/25/11 at Northwestern University

I have seen two screenings of the film GROW by Sarah Carlson; once in 2011 at Northwestern University and a second time about a year later at a tour of The Plant, a vertical farm and small food business incubator located in the Back Of The Yards neighborhood. Seeing it a second time, planted more ideas in my head and I want to expand on them in an edited post here.

GROW is a production about the state of our food system in Illinois, both urban and rural. As an amplified lens on food issues, GROW presents a complex problem and the many ways people are responding. People are no longer able to walk to a grocery store in a food desert neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Highlighting this problem, the film follows first generation farmers, legislators in Springfield, and public school students running their own farmers market. The film reports on how residents of Illinois are trying to get involved in the production of their food, in order to gain access to healthy options.

Popular ad campaigns for diet fads and green-washed food labels get preachy to guilt shoppers into “just making the right choice.” Neighborhoods on the south and west side of Chicago are without choice, and more likely without the extra cash for the ‘organic’ label. Some Chicago households have to take 2 or 3 buses or even a taxi to get to the nearest grocery store.  Options at the corner convenience store are limited to over ripened bananas or meat that looks a little brown on the edges.

In the breadbasket of America, why is it that people are unable to nutritionally feed themselves? Acres of rich farmland abound, but accessible, diverse, local produce does not. A problem for urban and rural people alike, single-crop corporate farming creates a fragmented food economy in the Mississippi Valley of Illinois.

In the second half of the film, Federal money has been sent to the Illinois government to mitigate the food deserts of Chicago. A lottery for a big box grocery store (Wal-Mart or Jewel-Osco) promises a subsidy to build in a neighborhood on the South Side. It is a band-aid over the multi-layered bullet wound. The residents of the neighborhood would now have access to fresh produce, at the cost of their dollars leaving the community. National grocery chains actively vie for government subsidies to get their store built for nearly free, while they become the hero and appear do the neighborhood a favor. Grassroots community groups know the hard truth. Jim Braun of the Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs task force, argues that there are better ways to replenish a food desert than plopping down a grocery store that draws wealth out of a community that already has scant resources.

I think this is where the Co-operative Grocery model would fit in nicely. A Co-op in Linden Hills, Minneapolis recently moved to a new building and reinvigorated their business by nearly tripling their membership. Not only does Linden Hills Co-op act in the values of its owners (the community) and use as many local farmers and producers as possible, but it keeps the dollar in the neighborhood by way of a dividend check. Part of the Co-op’s mission is to provide more whole foods in less packaging at a reasonable price. The Co-op business model blossomed in the 1970s in Minneapolis, and Chicago should nurture this food model in 2012.

Another avenue to solve the fragmented food economy of Illinois is to take it to the streets. Urban farming initiatives have sprouted up all over the South and West Side in 2009, where the very thing that makes neighborhoods distressed provides for a great garden: vacant lots and flat roofs. Providing a real oasis from the street, first-generation farmers have started using their own hands to grow food. Community gardens and urban farming bring many positive externalities. Beyond being able to feed yourself cheaply and nutritionally, urban farming gets members of the community out and working next to one another. Neighbors that get exercise pulling weeds together are much better able to resolve personal disagreements instead of getting the police involved. A second positive externality is that working outside among plants is good for overall health. Recent studies show that children who spend time among nature areas can mitigate the symptoms of ADHD. Thirdly, knowing how your food got from seed to plate means you are much less likely to waste it. Fourth, even gardeners, whose initial crops do not take root, frequently express a wide sense of accomplishment by way of trial and error planting. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel revamped the urban farming laws this past year to allow more farming, but there are still fettering restrictions on the sale of extra produce and who is able to use it (FDA laws prevent urban crops from being used in school lunches).

GROW advocates for a circular, participatory model. The film highlights Gary Comer College Prep students gardening on the rooftop and selling their harvest at a table as a sort of mini-farmers’ market. As an activity that is not instantly gratifying, growing food teaches students to be patient and wait for results (an action hard to come by in the information age). It trains students in entrepreneurial ventures. It connects the students with restaurants and chefs in Chicago. Gary Comer College Prep also hosts parent-child cooking classes in a commercial kitchen. Safety, nutritional value and preparing your own food are the afternoon’s lessons in a scene involving parents and their grade school kids (Albeit enjoying self-made meals on single use dishes; get out the ceramic!) Cooking for oneself with a range of diverse, whole ingredients is preventative health care. It’s no surprise that the communities suffering most from cardiovascular diseases, childhood obesity & diabetes are the ones living in food deserts.

Young people at colleges are not the only ones talking about the economy of food today. First Lady Michelle Obama is in town this week and spoke briefly on the air (10/25/11 WBEZ) about food deserts.

In a question and answer session at the end, Sarah touched on how we build inter-generational wealth and economic structure while nutritionally feeding a community. Clearly there is more work to do.

I look forward to the full-length feature! For more information on GROW the movie, visit