Chicago's City Farm: Farming in the City

Ken Dunn's program converts vacant lots to organic growing.

| November/December 2008

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Learning from the Ground Up

Ken Dunn is seeing green. He has a vision – a huge vision, in fact. He aspires to transform every single vacant lot in Chicago into one big, thriving, organic, sustainable city farm.

His goal is ambitious: an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 lots are empty, a total of approximately 10,000 acres within the city limits, many of which are located in low-income areas. Where there is now concrete, rubble and broken glass, Dunn sees a potential green oasis – one that can provide local jobs, beautification, fresh organic produce and invaluable training to schoolchildren and adults alike.

Dunn is founder and director of the Resource Center, an innovative non-profit that runs City Farm on just one acre in a vacant lot adjacent to public housing at Clybourn Avenue and Division Street, bordering the two diverse neighborhoods of Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast. This humble beginning has generated four full-time jobs, an on-site farm stand, local and national media attention, and the grateful patronage of Chicago's top chefs who regularly buy City Farm's produce for their gourmet restaurants.

A wonderful resource

Dunn long has been a man of vision. For more than 30 years, the Resource Center creatively brought together resources, both human and material, whose value has been overlooked, into economically viable projects that help create sustainable communities. Simply put, he’s taken stuff that normally would be thrown out and made something great out of it – all while augmenting human dignity.

An excellent example is the Perishable Food Recovery Program, which collects from restaurants and groceries edible food that would otherwise be wasted and delivers it to neighborhood food programs, such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The Creative Reuse Warehouse gathers overruns, rejects and by-products from business and industry and gives them to Chicago teachers and other organizations to teach classes, create student art and many other uses.

Blackstone Bicycle Works teaches neighborhood youth how to repair and customize bikes from donated recycled bicycles and parts. The Resource Center also operates a composting site and provides composting education and bins as well as community garden assistance.

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