Let’s talk about food justice.
It’s the concept that nourishing, fresh food is a human right, and so is a safe and respectful environment for those harvesting and cooking it. But like water protection and forest conservation, food justice requires brave and bold people willing to create a new forefront of change—which brings us to Erika Allen.
She’s the co-founder of Urban Growers Collective (UGC), a non-profit working to support underserved areas as they develop their own farms, gardens, and programming to help nourish, strengthen, and connect their communities. Currently, UGC has 8 farms (most around the South Side of Chicago) along with apprenticeship programs, herbalism classes, a mobile food market that brings fresh produce to schools, and… drumroll… this goat.
Here’s what Erika wants you to know about the UGC mission, the way to advocate for food justice in your neighborhood, and how to use the flowers growing in your own backyard.
Erika! What’s happening at the farm right now?
We’re getting ready for the growing season, which is more challenging because of climate change. It's been a really cold spring season, but also, most of the ground is already thawed out, so now we have to figure out what’s plant-able. I’m currently dealing with lettuce.
In your experience, how are people talking about food now?
It’s interesting. I’ve been meeting people who may have agricultural ancestry—their family used to have a farm, maybe two generations ago. Now they’re like, “Wait, how do I grow food? How do I take care of myself?” Whenever there’s a big disruption, I think people have their consciousness activated around food security, and the pandemic was obviously a huge disruption! So we’re seeing people talk not just about food but economic solidarity, agency, cooperation… And so while people are learning how to build a [soil] bed, how to use irrigation, how to harvest stuff, they’re also learning about food sovereignty and plant medicine.
For many people, nature is their escape from work. But you work in nature. How do you stay in love with the natural world and still lead a farming organization?
You know, recently we shifted our programming calendar from monthly to seasonal—solstices, equinoxes, things like that—to dictate our planting cycles. And you can’t get tired of that, because it’s life! It’s always a surprise, and the things that are consistent only happen during certain times of the year. It’s spring, so that means the soil warms up and you get the dirt between your fingers; the little insects show up because it’s warm enough that they start to do their thing; everything starts to wake up and renew… Then there are the bigger issues, like decarbonizing the economy, and supporting a community’s ability to have agency and build their own economy. Those types of possibilities are infinitely exciting to me, because there are so many layers of learning and participation with emerging leaders. And then, I’m a visual artist too, so I can make pictures and communicate differently at home than I do in my work.
What’s your advice to people in urban areas who want to get involved in urban farming and food equity, but don’t know where to start?
I mean, I value somebody who's growing a pot of basil on the windowsill! Learning how to do that is a big step! I don’t discount the stoop porch, or the balcony grower. That is a connection back to the land! If you can make your way to a community garden, great. But many of them are already full, and sometimes, they can get political. So if that’s not available to you, grow that basil plant! And remember, plants will die. You can’t beat yourself up if you learn from it. Maybe you needed to give it more water, maybe less. Try again. The other thing is, if you’re in a city, you can use your buying power to mindfully support farmers. Being a part of the food system that way is just as important. Buy local. Talk to the farmers selling food. Ask where things are grown. You know, I grow a ton of food, but I love going to the farmer’s market and buying a ton of food there, too!
Because it’s great to support the culture and the connection to growing… And look, living in a city is vibrant and amazing, but it means we need to contribute to folks who are growing food that stabilizes and secures all of us. We want to have that skin in the game.
What are you growing and eating right now?
The first thing that comes to mind is chickweed. Do you know about this? It’s one of the first plants that comes up in spring, and it looks a bit like a pea shoot at first… It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, and I've been beating it into my omelets. I've been putting it in salads. I’ve used it in infusions, hot and cold, so I can drink it… and I can feel it really working in my body. I had a cold that radically shifted, and diminished, after I started adding chickweed into my diet. It’s been amazing seeing my system respond so positively to it. Also, it’s yummy.
Please tell us your favorite animal fact.
You know, I was going to tell you something about dogs… but I think my favorite fact about animals, in general, is how the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom constantly work together. We as humans are part of a system that’s meant to interact with plants and animals! And I think in some ways, we’ve gotten so arrogant that we don’t recognize the intelligence of plants and animals outside of the human world, and that’s detrimental to our survival… so I’ve started noticing these connections, not just in a theoretical way, but as I’m witnessing them in real life. So now when I see fungi, I think, “Wow, that mushroom is part of a whole network. It’s communicating things and having these subterranean relationships that I will never understand!” I love that. I love what I don’t know about nature. I feel like nature winks at us sometimes, and that’s how we can be deeply humbled by it, but also really excited that we’re part of it.