Rachel Graf (Medill '14)

Walls of windows create a naturally lit environment inside the museum that perfectly highlights the dozens of tables piled high with organic food.  From vegetables to honey to cheese to meat, the Green City Market boasts a wide variety of locally grown crops.  

People of all ages span the two floors of the museum where the market bustles a few hours every Saturday.  Children run up and down the stairs, sampling as much free food as they can get their hands on, while elderly couples leisurely make their way throughout the maze of colorful picnic tables.

The Green City Market, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of downtown Chicago, is open every Saturday all four seasons.  To protect their crops from the cold Chicago winters, the farmers who attend the Green City Market during the winter months move their booths and produce inside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.  

More than half of the nearly 60 farms at the market have a sign on the tables with the acronym CSA, community supported agriculture.  

Nichols Farm & Orchard, located in Marengo, Ill, has one of the largest setups at the market.  With stacks of produce sprawling across its two long picnic tables.  Scores of bright yellow crates filled with fresh potatoes, onions and more perch on top of deep forest green table cloths.  Shareholders of farms like Nichols Farm & Orchard that have community supported agriculture receive a share of a local farm’s crops.

Nichols Farm & Orchard has been attending farmers markets about 35 years, but the farmers decided to get involved with community supported agriculture just one year ago, according to farmer Nick Nichols.  Within the past year of their involvement with the program, the farm’s amount of community supported agriculture customers has doubled.

“There are so many people nowadays who want to know where their food is coming from,” Nichols says.

Nick Nichols’ parents, Lloyd and Doreen, started Nichols Farm & Orchard on just 10 acres in 1977.  Now, the farm covers 250 acres and Nick Nichols and his brothers, Todd and Chad, make their livelihoods off the land.  Dressed in a dark gray hoodie with “Nichols Farm & Orchard” written in green across the front, Nick Nichols appears perfectly at ease surrounded by all the fresh food and natural lighting at the Green City Market.

What is a CSA?
Community supported agriculture is a system that has a person or a family who buys a share of a specific farm.  Throughout the year, the family will receive boxes of produce from the farm they have chosen.  The idea of community supported agriculture is that shareholders receive high quality, local produce while directly supporting small family farms.  

Members of Northwestern University’s MOSAIC “Members of Society Acting in Cooperation” cooperative recently decided to purchase a share of community supported agriculture.  The co-op is a house located a couple blocks west of Northwestern’s Evanston campus on the corner of Sherman Ave. and Foster St. with the mission of developing “a diverse, inclusive community which inspires and empowers creative, conscious, sustainable living,” according to their website.  Though open to all members of the community, the house and nearby apartment are currently home to 17 Northwestern students and one Northwestern graduate.

Avra Shapiro, sociology major at Northwestern, joined the co-op as a sophomore a year ago and has lived there ever since.  The 21-year-old’s passion for life and unapologetic curiosity are contagious.  

Throughout her three years at Northwestern, Shapiro has tried out for the university’s traditionally South Asian a cappella Brown Sugar group three times.  A white Jewish girl, Shapiro gave up on them and soon-after joined the traditionally all-black a cappella group Soul4Real.  She is one of the co-chairs for Northwestern’s annual Black Jewish Freedom Seder.  She spent part of a year after high school in Peru working in an orphanage and the other half of the year working in Argentina tutoring children.  She used to have dreadlocks.

When asked if asked if anything ever seems out of her comfort zone, Shapiro laughs and says she has no comfort zone.

A vegetarian by choice, Shapiro says she is attracted to Northwestern’s only co-op because of its vegetarian-only meals in addition to the members’ pledge to live sustainably.

“After high school I read a book called ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer where he basically sneaks his way into factory farms and just tells what he sees,” Shapiro says.  “That was it.”

Farmers and Shareholders
Tomato Mountain Farm, based in Brooklyn, Wis., now supplies Shapiro and the 17 other people living at the co-op with fresh eggs and produce every other week.

The farm, though located in Wisconsin, enjoys its greatest support from the Chicago community.  Stationed on the second floor of the Green City Market, workers from Tomato Mountain Farm man its post throughout the year.  

“There’s a whole culture now of green urban living,” says assistant sales manager Sean Shatto.  “There’s definitely an interest to do the environmentally correct thing while living in the city.”

Tomato Mountain Farm provides home delivery throughout the year to its shareholders in Wisconsin and the greater Chicago area.  The farm works with other local farms in Wisconsin to provide a wide variety of crops such as eggs and honey in an effort to make the local economy in and around the farm thrive.  Prices for a box of produce fresh from the farm range from $14/week for a box that will serve 1-2 adults and $45/week for a box that serves 3-6 adults.

Doubling its customers every year for the past three years, with about 410 customers currently, according to Shatto, Tomato Mountain Farm is a prime example of the eating local trend.

Inhabitants of Northwestern’s MOSAIC co-op enjoy Tomato Mountain Farm’s fresh eggs and produce through its community supported agriculture program.  The farm often throws an extra jar of tomato sauce or similar surprise into the produce box, Shapiro says.

For most community supported agriculture systems, shareholders pay a set amount of money up front for a certain number of weeks of produce.  Typically, shareholders do not select exactly what produce they will receive.  They are given instead a selection of the farm’s seasonally available crops.  Fresh cabbage and carrots are available during winter months whereas tomatoes and zucchini thrive during the summer.

If the farm does well, the box will be more full.  Community supported agriculture is therefore similar to an investment in a certain farm.  The shareholders also have the option of visiting the farm and perhaps even partaking in some of the farming, making the experience very personal. 

The system of shared farming known as community supported agriculture began in 1986 with just two farms: Indian Line Farm in western Mass. and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in southern N.H., according to Steven McFadden, author of “The Call of the Land.”  

The current amount of community supported agriculture is hard to put a number on, as there are no official directories.  The United States Department of Agriculture collected data in 2007 that indicated there were 12,549 farms in the United States that had community supported agriculture arrangements.  

However, many observers believe this number to err on the high side.  Local Harvest, a website with the most comprehensive list of community supported agriculture systems, listed just 2,932 community supported agriculture farms during 2007.  

As of 2012, Local Harvest’s directory included 4,571 farms with community supported agriculture, according to the website’s director Erin Barnett.  

Barnett estimates that the directory includes about 65-70 percent of all community supported agriculture throughout the United States.  

Following this logic, it can be estimated that there are currently more than 6,500 farms who partake in community supported agriculture within the United States.  

Last year, students at Loyola University Chicago helped add Loyola’s name to the list of community supported agriculture farms.  Students at Loyola started hosting a farmers market in 2011 with the mission of supporting a local food economy.  One of the vendors at the market is Loyola’s own farm that was started three years ago.  Located at the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Campus in Woodstock, Ill. this farm also partakes in community supported agriculture.  

Gina Lettiere, sustainability specialist at Loyola University Chicago, oversees the project.  Lettiere grew up in Chicago with the task of growing tomato plants in her family’s tiny urban backyard.  

“My girlfriends would come over and tease me,” Lettiere says.  “They were out there with bikes and I was like, no I gotta do this tomato stuff.”

Now, nearly 50 years old, Lettiere is still growing food on a porch in Chicago.  She enjoys lettuce, arugula and raspberries fresh from the porch of her apartment.  

As sustainability specialist, it is one of Lettiere’s responsibilities to mentor the students involved with Loyola’s community supported agriculture program that began in 2012.  During its first year, the program attracted 15 shareholders.  The crops grown on Loyola’s farm in Woodstock, Ill. supplies both Loyola’s booth at its farmers market as well as the shareholders of Loyola’s community supported agriculture.

What counts as sustainable?
Locavore: noun.  “A person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food,” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary.  The term was deemed the dictionary’s word of the year in 2007.

Eating locally contributes to sustainability by decreasing transportation costs associated with buying food from supermarkets and other larger producers.  The average truck delivering produce to Chicago travels more than 1,500 miles, according to a 2010 report by Stephen Farenga and Daniel Ness of the National Science Teachers Association.  Transporting food across these large distances harms the environment by increasing greenhouses gases and pollution.  

Restaurants and the food service industry as a whole are becoming more aware of what sustainability and eating locally means to their organizations, according to Eloise Karlatiras, CEO of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition.  

Karlatiras laughs when she talks about wanting to save the earth since she was a little kid.  Now, at just 31-years-old, Karlatiras is the president and CEO of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition.  

The coalition is dedicated to preserving the environment and conserving natural resources by helping the food service industry increase its sustainability, according to Karlatiras.

Throughout her undergraduate career at Northeastern Illinois University, Karlatiras worked at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.  Seeing the incredible amount of waste within the restaurant, Karlatiras developed a sustainability plan that she called the “Greenpiece Project.”  She analyzed every aspect of the restaurant, from waste products to food to chemicals, and devised a plan to increase its sustainability.

Such exposure to sustainability in restaurants made Karlatiras realize that this was the direction she wanted to go with her career.   While working on the “Greenpiece Project,” she contacted the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition and eventually took a job with the organization.

The Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition sends sustainability assistants into restaurants and thus helps the food service operators create plans to increase their restaurants’ sustainability.  Kind of like life coaches for restaurants, the sustainability assistants talk with restaurant staff about what the restaurants are currently doing and in what departments they can improve.  

Similarly, university cafeterias are also taking note of the importance of eating sustainably by buying local food, decreasing water use and so forth.

The University of Chicago has been working on developing a comprehensive sustainability program with its food provider, ARAMARK, about two years now.  The current goal of those working on sustainability in the dining halls is to purchase 40 percent of their food locally.  

“Food and how it’s grown and produced and processed is a very timely issue,” Flanagan says.  “We’re in the middle of doing research about what is local, why is it important and environmental versus economic impacts.”

People working on the project are still waiting on data to decide how much to purchase locally and what classifies as local.  The dining staff and Office of Sustainability also hopes to provide cage-free eggs, milk without hormones, sustainably caught fish and organic meats.  Flanagan admits that it’s an aggressive goal for an urban institution.  

Why should we care?   
An estimated 35 percent increase in the world’s population is expected to cause about 100 percent increase in the global demand for crops, according to a 2012 report by David Tilman, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  Because the demand for agriculture is expected to increase so drastically, small-scale farms will become vital, he writes.   

About 800,000 of the 2.2 million farms in the United States in 2007 were classified as small commercial farms, according to a 2010 paper by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Although all small farms, commercial and non-commercial, account for 91 percent of total farms and 23 percent of agriculture production, larger farms still have an advantage financially over smaller farms, according to the report. 

Additionally, farming is a high-risk industry that heavily depends on size and quality of land, weather, consumers and so forth, according to a 2013 report by professor Rebecca Nelson at Cornell University.  By encouraging consumers to purchase shares of farms at the beginning of the growing season, community supported agriculture helps small family farms stay in business.

Ilsa Flanagan, director of sustainability at the University of Chicago, has always had a passion for preserving the environment but she says the sustainability movement has become increasingly prominent within the past decade.

“The sustainability movement did a good job at communicating that you can live a sustainable lifestyle and really survive,” says Flanagan.  “I think prior to that there was a real sense of deprivation - you had to give something up and people didn’t react well to that.”

Although Flanagan started out as an attorney and lobbyist working in Washington, D.C., after about 10 years she tired of the politics and moved to Chicago in search of an environmentalist position.  This 45-year-old enjoys spending her free time visiting national parks and going on hikes.  Such a lifestyle has led her to realize the importance of preserving that natural space. 

Is all of this possible in a big city?
Urban environments tend to have the highest amount of community supported agriculture, according to a 2012 paper by Danielle Shelton, Texas State University, that focuses on community supported agriculture groups in Denver.  

Big cities typically have a wide range of options for public transportation, bike shares and access to grocery stores with organic and local food.  There’s a greater exposure to a wide range of options to live a more sustainable lifestyle in a city than you might find in a smaller town, says Flanagan.  

As the supervisor of Loyola’s small farm, Lettiere can attest to the importance of having a supportive community to make small farms a success.  Loyola’s farmers market relies heavily on customers from the Chicago area, according to Lettiere.  

Large farmers markets such as the Green City Market that began in 1998 thrive in urban environments such as Chicago.  

Looking forward
Lisa Hish has been participating in the community supported agriculture program of the farm Angelic Organics, located in Caledonia, Ill., since 1995.  She joined after reading an article in the Chicago Reader about the farm.  She wanted to taste the farm’s purple potatoes.  

After that, she was hooked.

Food has always played a large role for Hish and her family.  Because Hish’s ex-husband is French, her family used to spend a lot of time in France where they would shop daily in the market.  Fresh food such as the produce provided at local farms became essential to Hish and her family.  They have built a sort of culture around the act of eating.

“America is very much a fast food country, but we spend time preparing the food together, eating it, hanging out, sitting and talking,” Hish says.  “It’s sort of weird but it works.”

Often, the 53-year-old will drive her two college-aged daughters 80 miles to work on the Angelic Organics farm.  Her children have been engaged with the environment since a young age and appreciate the difference between local and store-bought food, Hish says.

So much so that her youngest daughter Chloe, 18, applied to Beloit College based on the fact that she could purchase a share of community supported agriculture.
 

    Author

    Rachel Graf is a junior in the Medill School of Journalism