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Vacant lots in Chicago now educate and grow food

Vacant lots in Chicago now educate and grow food

Nancy Zook pick tomato

Nancy Zook, a CCA Academy teacher and its director of sustainability and community engagement, enjoys a tomato from its food forest on the west side of Chicago.

CHICAGO — On the west side of Chicago is a little oasis, a food forest in a formerly vacant lot with tomatoes by the handful and pears and apples ready to pick.

Along with the fruit trees, towering old trees add shade to the ground dotted with tree stump seats for CCA Academy high schoolers to gather to learn or to plan their next project here.

CCA academy

A bright sign welcomes the public to the Permaculture Park, explaining it is an agricultural ecosystem intended to be sustainable.

Perma Park sign

This green site in the 1300 block of S. Pulaski Road in the North Lawndale community is part of a grade 10 to 12 alternative school and charter high school for students who had left other schools. Urban agriculture has grown to be an important part of this inner city high school.

CCA Academy has six lots that had been filled with debris. In 2017-18, the school started to develop them, planting 70 fruit trees and bushes.

Mwana Hodges

Mwana Hodges, a high school student at CCA Academy on Chicago’s west side, enjoys an apple the school has grown in its food forest. 

“Food forests take 5 to 7 years, and we are in our fourth year,” said Myra Sampson, the school’s principal, CEO and founder 43 years ago. The project stemmed from her interest in teaching students about healthy foods.

“It’s amazing how much progress has been made,” said Nancy Zook, the school’s director of sustainability and community engagement, who has been a teacher here for 14 years.

The food forest is still a work in progress, said Andrew Hockenberry, the school’s sustainability assistant.

It’s not picture perfect but has a practical beauty, with crops for the picking and spots to sit and enjoy nature in North Lawndale, one of the poorest communities in Chicago.

There are enough vacant lots in Chicago to fill the whole of the city core, Zook said.

This school was founded in 1978 as Community Christian Alternative Academy, said Sampson, the school’s guiding force since the beginning.

Over time as the community and educational approaches have evolved, so has the school.

At the beginning it was the only school on the west side for students who had dropped out of other schools. In its early years, 66% of the students went on to four year-colleges after graduation, she said.

In time, the school changed its name to its acronym CCA, when the term “alternative” became derogatory.

“The whole part of education is to make people whole; you are not doing that if you are saying they are less than,” she said of her continued attention to word choice in describing students and others.

Over time the community’s demographics changed. The neighborhood still shows remnants of its bustling industrial past, but as factories moved and jobs disappeared this legislative district’s population decreased from 120,000 to 35,000, reaching as low as 20,000 people before redistricting, the principal said.

The school had as many as 250 students with 36 staffers about a decade ago, and has about 150 students, ages 17 to 21, with 25 staff today.

Like many schools, it struggled during the pandemic with students not allowed in classrooms for a time. Some were reluctant to return at first, Zook said. Attendance remains lower than before the pandemic Sampson said.

The pandemic drew attention to the impact that food accessibility has on the poor, with 96% of the students eligible for free and reduced lunches here.

Accessibility to healthy food has long been a focus of the school.

In 2003, when Sampson was working on her PhD dissertation, she became especially aware of the impact food and healthy diets has on students, and created curriculum to address the issue.

“We had one garden bed. The next year we have four,” she said. Soon two full city lots were gardens.

“We made a conscious decision not to fence the gardens,” Sampson said.

The food is available to the community and the students.

Next, a 25x125-foot bioswale was constructed on the low-lying land adjacent to the school’s parking lot. The ornamental grasses and perennials there filter the storm water. Four beehives were also added, she said.

Science teacher Kenhkashan Khan

Science teacher Kenhkashan Khan looks at plants in her classroom at CCA Academy in North Lawndale.

In science, students learn about composting, aquaponics and growing plants. They also learn about a variety of ag and science-related careers including food photography, said Kehkanshan Khan, a science teacher who holds a degree in botany.

“Sustainability is the theme,” she said, recounting projects students have done including growing and eating microgreens and a memorable vermiculture project where a student raised earthworms in a shoe box.

Hockenberry, the school’s sustainability assistant, uses the school’s giant aquarium in teaching students about aquaculture. He also cultivates student interest in aquaponics as well as agriculture in the food forest. Students are introduced to food and crops they may not have tried before. They tasted grilled zucchini and grew popcorn, Zook said.

One things Mwana Hodges, a grade 12 student, says he likes best here is being part of a smaller school with small class sizes. His favorite subjects are math and history.

The non-denominational school holds certain values and morals to help youths to “grow up well,” Sampson said.

“You can’t anticipate what beauty lives in another,” she said.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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