More than 11% of Cook County residents will grapple with food insecurity this year according to a report released this summer by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, meaning over 600,000 individuals may be unable to procure affordable nutritious sustenance on a regular basis. Evanston Grows, a newly established collective, aims to tackle that problem head-on by providing direct access to fresh local produce grown in an expanding network of community food gardens across the city.

Evanston Grows has a simple goal, according to Jean Fies, one of its 12 founding members: “Put more edible gardens in Evanston to address food insecurity and health equity. That is it in a nutshell.” Since its inception in April, the fledgling organization, which also includes lead co-founders Susan Trieschmann and Lisa Zschunke, has revitalized several existing gardens and helped create four new community gardens.

Perry Park neighbors gather for Build Day on May 15 and begin construction of the West End Garden. (Photo by Monica Fox)

The recently revamped Fleetwood Garden now yields roughly 40 pounds of produce each week during growing season, April through October. Volunteers harvest crunchy kale, plump eggplant, tender beans, ripe tomatoes, fragrant herbs and more on Mondays and Tuesdays and invite neighbors to share in the bounty during the weekly distribution. Unclaimed overflow from other community gardens is also channeled to the Fleetwood distribution site, ensuring that nothing goes to waste.

Kenneth Cherry, recreation manager for Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, said the food from the garden is a tremendous asset, but the neighborhood also reaps other benefits.

“The people enjoy the community aspect of the garden,” he said, “and the fact that there are fresh vegetables is the gravy on the potatoes.” Cherry said the verdant space, packed with growing plants and humming pollinators, also provides a visual treat. “Evanston Grows,” he said, “has created a truly sustainable program.”

Residents at nearby Emerson Square Apartments, one of Evanston Grows’ four new garden sites, also have been enjoying ready access to fresh vegetables this season. At the urging of Denise Johnson, one of the residents in the complex, Fies helped create a productive edible garden last spring.

“The raised beds were already there when we entered the picture,” Fies said, “but they were full of weeds. They were falling apart and there was no water, so we worked with the manager.” He agreed to provide access to water so that the garden could be maintained.

Johnson, who said she had no prior experience gardening, has been getting her hands dirty all season and is delighted with the tasty results. “I didn’t really even eat vegetables before,” she said with a laugh. “I eat the spinach and the cherry tomatoes and the collard greens and the mustard greens, so my iron has improved. It’s helping me all the way around.”

New friendships are an additional positive yield from the garden. “I’ve gotten to know three neighbors I didn’t know before,” Johnson said. “We’ve all gotten together and gardened together. I really enjoy just being outside and getting to meet other people.”

Cindy Pope, another Emerson Square resident, also appreciates the community connection as well as the fresh tomatoes. “I have an autistic son who lives with me and he loves tomatoes,” Pope said. “Every day I go and I pick a few for him, and it really makes him happy.” This is also Pope’s first experience puttering in a garden. “I’ve always wanted to,” she said, “but I’ve always lived in apartments and never had a spot to garden. It’s wonderful.”

Friday evenings are the official harvest time at Perry Park’s West End Garden, but fresh produce is available for picking all week long. (Photo by Monica Fox)

At Perry Park on Hovland Court a garden planted this spring in conjunction with Evanston Fight for Black Lives is about food and also about healing. Neighborhood resident and schoolteacher Kristin Huzar explained the origins of the West End Garden.

“There was a shooting on our street last March and two of our young men were killed in broad daylight while everyone was home e-learning,” she recalled. “And so the neighbors banded together. It started as meetings to talk about the violence and what we could do and it kind of turned into, ‘We need to build a community.’”

The group met with representatives from Evanston Grows who offered to help the Perry Park neighbors execute a plan for a community garden that would help restore a sense of connection in the neighborhood.

“Now we have this amazing garden,” said Huzar. “We all volunteer there. It’s been a place to bring us together. It’s been great for some of the younger kids in the area to see how food grows and where our food comes from.” Huzar praised the efforts of the Evanston Grows collective. “They’ve added a lot of richness to our neighborhood.”

Housing Opportunities for Women on Dempster Street now has two raised beds in the back of the building that were constructed with the help of the Appalachian Service Project and are maintained by residents with help from an Evanston Grows volunteer. Produce is harvested each week and left in the lobby for distribution. Fies said one woman noted that this was the first time she had ever sampled vegetables freshly picked from a garden.

Evanston Grows is also partnering with St. Nicholas Church to transform the church’s existing gardens. Fies sees the project as one more opportunity to bring fresh produce to local residents. “One of their beds was just flowers. We put in some herbs and a few plants. We’re finding out what they want and working with them to grow more food.”

Fies said Evanston Grows is eager to assist any faith-based organization, community group or school that wants to establish a garden or needs help maintaining an existing garden. The collective can provide educational support and volunteers as well as assistance in produce distribution.

At least four more edible gardens are on the horizon for next year, according to Fies. Evanston Grows will be putting its gardens to bed at the end of the month, but a recent $15,000 grant from the Evanston Community Foundation means plans can proceed for gardens at Mason Park, Robert Crown Community Center, Erie Health Center and an additional Evanston park site that has yet to be determined. With a $3,000 Whole Kids Foundation grant, the organization plans to purchase or construct a portable farmstand to use at produce distribution sites.

Evanston Grows’ first official educational event, The Big Garden Wrap-Up, will be held Sunday, Oct. 24, rain or shine. Fies will demonstrate how to prepare beds for the winter months and how to plant garlic and onions now to enjoy during the coming growing season.

The Oct. 24 event is free and open to the public at the following locations:

  • 1 to 3 p.m. at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Garden, 1655 Foster St.
  • 1 to 3 p.m. at Emerson Square Garden, 1580 Foster St.
  • 3 to 5 p.m. at the West End Garden at Perry Park, 1741 Hovland Court

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.