At Global Garden, Changing the World One Tomato at a Time

By Patty Wetli | Monday, July 30, 2012

One of the young participants in the refugee training farm shows off his bitter melon. Credit: Sarah Tilotta

Just west of the Chicago River along Lawrence Avenue, the site of a failed condo development has turned into a global success story.

Dedicated last Thursday, Global Garden (3000 W. Lawrence Ave.) has, in just a few short months, transformed a blighted vacant lot into a thriving green space, home to both a community garden and refugee training farm.

“It’s a place where positive things happen in our community,” said Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), speaking at the dedication ceremony on a wicked hot afternoon. Mell helped arrange a three-year lease on the land, immediately adjacent to Ronan Park, for just $1 per year. “Maybe we should extend it for another 20 years,” he said, earning cheers from the gathered crowd.

The partners at Global include the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly (CLESE), the Peterson Garden Project (PGP) and the North River Commission. PGP occupies a quarter acre on the property, with area residents tending more than 150 raised bed edible gardens, growing peppers, squash, melons, beans and more. (Full disclosure: This reporter is gardening at Global. Take my basil, please.) CLESE is operating the remaining acreage as an urban farm for 35 refugee families from Bhutan and Burma.

The refugees all come from family farming traditions in their native countries. “They’re learning to adapt their expertise as farmers to the climate of Chicago,” said Marta Pereyra, executive director of CLESE.

The goals of the farm are two-fold: One large section is yielding fresh produce for participating families’ individual use. A second section is teaching the refugees urban, organic farming techniques as part of a long-term plan for Global to serve as a incubator for refugee-owned farms and businesses. George Jewell Catering (not to be confused with that other Jewel) is purchasing all of the produce grown in this communal plot.

Jewell has already collected pounds of basil, radishes, eggplants and mustard greens. “We call it ‘hyperlocal’ produce,” said Myles Bosack, director of marketing for Jewell. “Not many other catering companies can offer that.”

As Global becomes more established in the surrounding community, the hope, expressed by a number of speakers at the dedication, is to engage an increasing number of youth. Mission semi-accomplished: Just one day prior to the dedication, a group of teens from nearby Community Human Services Inc. (CHSI) volunteered at Global, watering plants, pulling weeds and picking up litter.

“It’s easy to be disassociated from the food you eat,” said CHSI’s Scott Steffe, who explained that the organization typically works with disenfranchised or at-risk youth. A little sweat equity at Global was intended to teach responsibility and build character.

Brandon, a 17-year-old who attends Curie High School, came to CHSI on the advice of his mentor who “helps me get out of trouble and shows me there’s better things in life than hanging around.” His grandmother tended her own garden in Mexico and Brandon eagerly eyed the watermelon and strawberries at Global. “I always wanted to learn,” he said. “I always wanted to grow my own fruit.”

Perhaps the founder of PGP, LaManda Joy, wasn’t far off base when she said, “By working in the soil, you can change the world.”

July 26, 2012. The CLESE Refugee Group (Coalition of Limited English-Speaking Elderly) sang a song of thanks to the organizers and crowd gathered for the dedication of the Global Garden in Chicago’s Albany Park community. Bhutanese refugee Chabi Darnal joined in with an impromptu dance.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2402593 Lizzy Magarian

    Great article, Patty! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Sk8teboardC Charisse Thompson

    How do help with gardening?

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