Last fall, when First Lady Michelle Obama came to Chicago to address where the city was coming up short in terms of food access for its residents, she arrived amid reports that the city's food desert problem has improved, though it continues to persist in its South and West Side, predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
In one such neighborhood, the Back of the Yards, Chicagoan Alex Poltorak is working with an innovative organization to help alleviate that problem with what he's called The Urban Canopy. The goal, Poltorak explains, is to install a 3,000 square foot farm on the rooftop of the organization's base, a previously vacant 93,500 square foot meatpacking facility, in order to produce fresh food for the community that surrounds it.
In order to get his ambitious project off the ground beyond its pilot stage, Poltorak launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year. Now in the campaign's tail end, the he still needs additional donations to be funded.
Continuing our "Can They Kick It?" profile series profiling the talented Chicagoans behind local crowd-sourced projects, The Huffington Post spoke with Poltorak about how he hopes to bring fresh, local food from the roof to the dinner tables of Chicagoans throughout the city.
HP: Have you always been interested in farming or is this a more recent interest? I'm curious how you would arrive at an idea like Urban Canopy.
AP: My path to becoming a farmer is definitely strange. At the University of Illinois, I studied computer engineering and then worked as a chip designer in Minneapolis. After about four years of that I went to the University of Minnesota and earned an MBA. I was looking to do something that had an impact for good and after graduating completed an Education Pioneers Fellowship with the Chicago Public Schools in 2010. During the fellowship, we discussed how many children in urban schools often get their only meal of the day at school and most of their out-of-school options are limited to fast food or junk food.
After completing the fellowship, I decided to attack this head on by increasing the availability of healthy fruits and veggies in our communities. Having no farming background I looked around, and worked my network of friends, to see who's doing this sort of thing in Chicago.
And that eventually led you to the Back of the Yards, yes?
A friend of a friend was working at Growing Home's Wood St. Farm in the Englewood part of Chicago and I went to chat with him and see their operations. The visit was inspirational and their focus isn't even farming, they're a job training organization for those with employment challenges. He told me about a new project called The Plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. John Edel bought this ex-meatpacking factory and was planning on converting it into a "vertical farm." I heard John talk about the concept at the Jane Addams Hull House and immediately chased -- or, more accurately, biked -- him back to the building; I began volunteering there that same day.
So what inspired you to do specifically rooftop farming?
I couldn't find anyone that was doing rooftop farming. After a few months of deconstruction, demolition and construction, I told John my concept for the rooftop and he said, "OK, go for it." The Urban Canopy's vision is to show we can use rooftops throughout the city as small farms to grow these fruits and veggies, organically and sustainably, in many areas of Chicago. Rooftop farming can be a vital part of the local agriculture movement to create the sustainable and equitable food system we desperately need.
So, for those of us completely lacking green thumbs, could you explain what exactly the Urban Canopy has entailed to this point? What do you hope to achieve?
In January 2011, starting in the basement then moving to the roof in May, I built a small pilot farm using a vertical hydroponic system. On about a hundred square feet, these "towers" and some containers in between grew about 75 pounds of mustard greens, lettuce, chards, kale, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and corn. For 2012, we're going through this Kickstarter campaign to expand this pilot into a full-fledged rooftop farm of 3,000 square feet, expected to grow over 2,500 pounds of food and provide a teachable example of how this can continue to grow throughout the city.
Poltorak at work on the pilot farm edition of a model he hopes will significantly improve access to high-quality, locally-grown food in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. Image courtesy of the Urban Canopy.
Do you have any particular favorite things that you love to grow?
I love to grow mustard greens. This past year, it grew well on the roof and I developed a strange fondness of giving an unsuspecting visitor a raw leaf of mustard greens and watching their reactions. First, they get the juicy texture of a nice green and go "Mmm," but then this spicy kick follows and his or her face would light up, "Oh!"
It seems as though there are a lot of great things happening around urban farming in Chicago right now, particularly as the laws have become more friendly to it while, at the same time, people are becoming aware of issues like food deserts, food insecurity and the benefits of eating locally and organically. Why do you think all of these things are taking place concurrently?
This improvement is has been coming for a long time. The recession has probably helped interest from a financial perspective but there has been increasing awareness of the unequal food access across Chicago and unsustainable agricultural practices building for decades. This is in addition to online resources and new data showing all the negative consequences of these poor circumstances. Further building on the general global movements recognizing climate change and major environmental damage. Perfect storm or the long simmer is finally starting to boil over?
What else would you like to see the city do to help make it easier for more people to take on urban farming projects such as yours?
Zoning changes passed last year were a great start. Next steps include further interactions with grassroots organizations like the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council and Advocates for Urban Agriculture. My involvement in these organizations focuses on creating draft proposals for new composting regulations at the city/county/state levels, re-creating local and regional food infrastructure (such as cold storage and distribution), so that our supply chain can incorporate urban growers, and creating a better way that potential farmers can get training, financing and access to vacant "land."
Finally, the winter can be a tough time for people trying to eat more locally here in the Midwest. Have any tips on how people can get by without reverting to an all-frozen pizza diet?
A truly seasonal diet is tough. From a farming perspective we have a few tactics called "season extension." These include using some basic hoophouses or greenhouses to grow some of our food (almost) year round.
From an eater's perspective there are ways of naturally preserving fruits and veggies -- think jams and canned goods or newer techniques like flash freezing. Not to mention, certain crops are still in the ground during the winter, like late-season greens or tubers like potatoes. There are several local CSAs -- community-supported agriculture -- and farmers markets like Green City Market or Faith In Place that go year round, so they help by making it more convenient, as well.
As of Feb. 7, with 10 days to go, Poltorak's Urban Canopy fundraising campaign is oh, so close -- it has raised nearly $9,300 of its $10,000 fundraising goal. Click here to learn more about the Urban Canopy and help this important project become a reality.
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