Sowing Seeds of Hope: Chicago’s “Growing Home”

Written by Melanie G. Snyder on Thursday - July 05, 2012.

On a sweltering Thursday afternoon in mid-June, I boarded the #8 bus in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, and headed south on Halsted Street to Garfield, where I switched to the #55. Twenty blocks later, I exited the bus in the heart of Englewood, one of Chicago's poorest and most desolate neighborhoods . . . 

I walked down South Wood Street, past small houses where elderly men and women, and young children watched me from their front porches. Scattered between the houses were boarded up buildings and weedy vacant lots strewn with litter and broken glass. At the end of the street, just before a high concrete overpass, was a tiny green oasis called Growing Home, an organic urban farm and social enterprise. Growing Home provides transitional jobs and job skills training to people coming out of prison, homelessness or substance abuse. 

I was visiting Growing Home to learn all I could that might be helpful in our Lancaster County RMO social enterprise initiatives.

Beth Gunzel, Growing Home's Employment Training Manager, and Shaniece Alexander, Program Assistant, greeted me and we sat in the shade of a large arbor while they gave me an overview of their organization.

Growing Home has been around for over 15 years. It was founded by Les Brown, former policy director for Chicago's homelessness coalition, who started a single farm south of the city where people experiencing homelessness could connect with nature by growing food and, in turn, develop a sense of purpose for their lives. Since then, Growing Home has expanded to four organic production farms where program participants (called "interns") grow vegetables and herbs ranging from arugula to zucchini.

Interns go through an extensive application and interviewing process to get into the program, then are accepted into one of two annual "cohorts" of about twenty people each. Interns in each cohort are required to complete about 24 hours per week of work and classes, for which they are paid minimum wage. Each cohort program runs for 14 weeks.

Interns in the April – July cohort are responsible for preparing the planting beds, sowing the seeds, watering, transplanting, weeding, and otherwise tending the plants through the initial growing season, then harvesting early crops, and doing general groundskeeping at the farms.

Those in the July – October cohort tend all of the crops through the peak growing season, harvest the crops, weigh and package produce to prepare CSA shares, and staff the farm stands and farmers market booths where they sell their produce. The interns also attend daily classes in agriculture sciences, horticulture, farm production, soil science, plant life cycles, nutrition, food systems, financial literacy, and job readiness (resume writing, interviewing, soft skills). The interns are rotated through all four of the farms, as each one provides different experiences.


For example, at the original 10 acre Les Brown Memorial Farm, outside of Chicago in Marseilles, IL (in operation since 2002), interns learn to tend chickens and bees, along with vegetables and fruit trees. They run CSA's for produce and eggs from this farm.

On Chicago's Southside, at the Su Casa Catholic Worker shelter for battered women, Growing Home uses land owned by Su Casa to grow veggies and herbs. In exchange, Growing Home supplies fresh produce for Su Casa's shelter residents and the soup kitchen that operates there. Growing Home also offers cooking demonstrations, community workshops on canning and food preservation, container gardening, and composting at the Su Casa site. Growing Home interns can also grow food for their own home use at this farm.

The Wood Street Farm, the one I visited, is the site of the Growing Home offices and classrooms, as well as their vegetable processing facility. Wood Street is also where they offer "farm tours", movie nights, barbeques and other programs to engage the local community. The Wood Street Farm has been in operation since 2006, and in 2010 alone, they grew and sold over 11,000 pounds of USDA Certified Organic fresh produce from this tiny 2/3rd acre plot, which they purchased from the city.

Next door to Wood Street, their newest farm is Honore Street, a former abandoned lot that was acquired by a Chicago organization called NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust, specifically to give Growing Home space for an additional urban farm. Chicago's City Council recently passed a new "urban agriculture" zoning ordinance that significantly reduces the amount of red tape involved in setting up and operating urban farms like Wood Street and Honore Street.

(in Pennsylvania, a bill called HB1682 would establish Land Banks, which could allow for something similar to be done here. Land banks allow developers, builders, community groups, neighbors, farmers, gardeners, etc to purchase blighted, abandoned properties and get them back into productive re-use.)

Growing Home's newest initiative is a partnership with a Chicago-based custom perfume development company called "Tru Fragrance" to grow herbs and flowers that will be used to create perfume.

They have also spearheaded the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Task Force made up of over 80 individuals and organizations concerned about addressing the problems of food deserts in the city.

Food deserts have been getting a lot of attention in the media, along with issues like sustainability, "green jobs" and the local foods movement. Growing Home is ideally positioned to capitalize on the attention being given to these issues, since their programs address each of these areas. According to Beth Gunzel, the demand for their produce far exceeds supply, so they haven't had to put many resources toward marketing their products.

But they've had challenges in other areas. One comes in the form of tension many social enterprises experience between operating social programs with "program participants" while also running a profitable business where those same people serve as "employees".

"We have to balance having and enforcing workplace policies with giving interns opportunities to grow and develop," Beth explains. "For the most part, we're working with people who have had little to no prior work experience. We have to create a realistic work environment like what they'll face in a regular job, but still allow some leeway and flexibility where interns can make mistakes but not get fired immediately."

She explains that they strive to turn interns' mistakes or poor behavior into "learning opportunities".

"It takes LOTS of coaching," she continues. "We have to help interns understand the connections between their actions and outcomes on the job. At the same time, we want to increase their sense of self-efficacy."

They've also had to refine their application and selection process for interns, to be sure they're bringing in interns who truly want to work in a farm environment and who understand the working conditions that entails, like digging in the earth, working outdoors all day, getting grubby and sweaty. Even so, interns are often surprised at how the work affects them.

"Being a farmer is something I never imagined doing," former Growing Home intern Fred Daniels explains in a recent annual report. Before coming to Growing Home, Daniels, age 29, spent eight years in prison for attempted murder and drug possession. But after graduating from the Growing Home program, Daniels was hired to work for the organization as an Urban Farm Assistant. "Now I have a great awareness about plants. I treat them with care, for they are what sustains life."

Daniels now uses what he's learned from his work at Growing Home to maintain a large garden for his grandmother, and he's helped friends and neighbors with gardening advice. "It feels good," he says.

Daniels' testimony seems to reflect the original vision Les Brown had when he started Growing Home. Shortly before his death in 2005, Brown wrote, "Our organic farming program is a way for [interns] to connect with nature—to plant and nurture roots over a period of time. When you get involved in taking responsibility for caring for something, creating an environment that produces growth, then it helps you build self-esteem and feel more connected."

For more information on Growing Home, see their website

About the Author

Melanie G. Snyder

Melanie G. Snyder

Melanie G. Snyder serves as the Executive Director of the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization (RMO). She was a featured TEDx speaker at the first-ever TEDx event in Lancaster. 

She is an NIC-certified Offender Workforce Development Specialist, a certified Global Career Development Facilitator, and a certified instructor for the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Healing Communities model. She is also a trained restorative justice mediator.

Prior to Melanie's involvement with the RMO, she spent several years researching and writing the book Grace Goes to Prison: An Inspiring Story of Hope and Humanity (Brethren Press, 2009), which tells the true story of a woman who volunteered in Pennsylvania's state prisons for over 30 years, creating inmate education and reentry programs based on principles of restorative justice. After Grace Goes to Prison was published, Melanie traveled throughout the United States, doing speaking engagements and meeting with other reentry and restorative justice professionals to discuss criminal justice issues and exchange information and ideas.