Left to right: Chef Q, with two students, Kaneesha and Arayha and NU intern, Kelly O’Brien pose in front of the Foster Street Urban Garden.

Located behind the Family Focus building, 2010 Dewey Ave., a long and narrow plot of overgrown grasses and weeds has been transformed into a thriving urban garden thanks to the collaboration between Family Focus and Evanston Food Exchange, a non-profit organization with a mission to reduce hunger and poverty in Evanston.  The Foster Street Urban Agriculture Program aims to supply fresh food to the community while providing hands-on learning for children and teens about planting, harvesting, composting, cooking and entrepreneurship.

  On any given Tuesday or Wednesday morning this summer, a group of enthusiastic children from the Family Focus Summer Camp program can be found digging, weeding and harvesting their crops. Led by Chef Q. Ibraheem, the children, between the ages of 8 and 14, are learning how to cultivate a garden.

On this particular Tuesday morning in the garden, Chef Q, as she is affectionately known throughout the community, is surrounded by a small group of eager 10-year-olds and is holding up a bunch of basil.

“Who can tell me some fun facts about basil?”  she asks the children.

“It helps keep bugs out of the garden,” declares one child.

“It’s really good on pizza,” says another.

Chef Q believes the skills the children gain from working in the garden are invaluable.

“It’s so important to understand where our food comes from,” she says. “The kids learn everything from growing food from seeds to selling their produce at the Farmers Market but, most importantly, they are getting outside and getting their hands in the dirt.”

Thanks to hard work from the children, devoted neighborhood volunteers and cooperative weather, the garden is exploding with produce this summer including kale, Swiss chard, cucumbers, beans, squash, raspberries, strawberries and herbs, just to name a few. The majority of the food is brought to the Family Focus Food Pantry where community members can pick up fresh produce free of charge.

Chef Q and the students will also be selling their produce at the Evanston Farmers Market several Saturdays this summer and fall.

Every Thursday from 4 to 6 is Community Garden Day.

“Anyone can come and help us weed or just sit on a bench and read a book,” Chef Q says. “If they help, they are welcome to take food home.”

The Foster Street Urban Agriculture Program began three years ago, but this is the first year it expanded to include a curriculum, thanks to a grant from the Rotary Club of Evanston.

Last Saturday evening, The Evanston Food Exchange hosted a farm-to-fork dinner with all proceeds benefitting the program. A large tent was erected in the Family Focus parking lot overlooking the garden. The students participated in harvesting the food for the dinner (which was cooked by Chef Q), setting up the communal dining table and leading garden tours for the guests. 

Erin McKenzie, a recent Evanston Township High School graduate, has been working in the garden this summer. She, along with three other students, were hired through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

Ms. McKenzie, who hopes to work with children as a counselor or a teacher some day, says the job has been a meaningful experience for her.

“I’ve been able to make great connections with the kids, and I’ve also learned a lot about community gardening,” she says.

Chef Q, who grew up eating the food from her father’s farm, says her childhood experiences impacted her life work.

“It’s about building a sustainable community by growing food, teaching the children, employing the people and feeding the community.”