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EDIBLE ACRE at ETHS (Evanston, IL): A story of networking, political will, & community on behalf of a local high school

An article in the Fall 2021 newsletter (The Kit) of the Evanston Township High School Alumni Association spurred me to reflect on the process of creating a community project, in this case the 12-year old Edible Acre Pilot Project, an urban agriculture project at ETHS. This blog consists of three accounts of the birth and development of EAPP, accounts which confirm the eternal paradox of manifestation: Every such project requires an alignment of stars, but the alignment is always unique — to the geography, people, and circumstances.

As this document makes clear, the Edible Acre is still in a pilot project stage — not yet a full acre. Based on my discussions with farm manager Matt Ryan in 2020-21, it sounds like the total acreage is currently about 1/7 of an acre. In other words, there is still more room to grow. Nevertheless, 12 years is nothing to sneeze at and, as the Alumni Association’s article makes clear, there has been steady growth over the years. 

I know that the Evanston Food Exchange was advocating for a full implementation of the Edible Acre and I believe that they drafted a plan. I do not know where that stands, but if anyone in Evanston is looking for a good food & farm project, that would be an obvious and meaningful one, on many levels. I included this recommendation in my Jan. 2022 blog Food Security in Evanston, IL: Ideas for 2022, for Illinois, & Beyond.

A. ETHS celebrates 12 years of “going green” (The Kit)
B. Resident Remembers Kate Mahoney (Evanston Roundtable)
C. Edible Acre PIlot Project: An Evanston Networking Story
APPENDIX: ETHS Gardens: Edible Acre Homepage

A. ETHS celebrates 12 years of “going green”
The Kit, Fall 1021

Thanks to the Alumni Association for documenting much of the creation, leadership, participation, and evolution of the 12-year old EAPP. The original article can be read in its original format here, ETHS celebrates 12 years of “going green” (page 4). Or just read it here:

This year, ETHS is celebrating its 12th-year anniversary of going green — literally.

Each fall since 2009, ETHS has daily served students and staff about 3,000 pounds of organically grown produce harvested from a school-owned lot at Dodge Ave. and Davis St. From late August to November, and during summer school, the cafeterias offer up home-grown fresh lettuce, root crops, greens, herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, and even edible flowers.

Dubbed the Edible Acre, the empty lot began as a joint venture with The Talking Farm, a local urban agricultural-educational organization. At the time, it was a learning lab for students in the Horticulture and Senior Studies courses, and the Green Team and Community Service Club, which built and maintained the 5,000-square-foot plot. After three years, Urban Agriculture replaced Horticulture, where students learn sustainable agricultural practices as the primary caretakers of the ETHS “Edible Acre” garden.

In stepped Kim Minestra, ETHS Nutrition Services Director, who felt there was more the school could do to expand the harvest in the Edible Acre. “I realized there was just more potential, so I worked with Matt Ryan [former Talking Farm’s Operations Manager] to create a crop plan so we could get as much harvest out of it as possible.” More raised beds were built, more crops were planted, and the school’s empty greenhouse became a winter seedbed for lettuce, herbs, and other vegetables. “It’s now year-round production,” said Ryan.

The growing venues have also expanded. In 2016, 25 fruit trees were planted near the ETHS football field—now named the Edible Orchard—including Asian pears and a variety of apple trees. During summer 2018, ETHS added 14 raised beds adjacent to the orchard, creating an additional 900 sq. ft. of growing space dubbed Edible Acre 2.

Students are integral to the success of the ETHS local garden program. Ryan works with Urban Agriculture teacher Ellen Fierer to teach students about gardening and sustainability practices, using the school’s greenhouse and Edible Acres as classrooms. Students in the Community Service Club can work in the gardens to fulfill community service hours. ETHS hires students in the city’s Youth Employment Program to work in the gardens throughout the summer (see photos at right).

Both Edible Acre plots are “especially unique because we use organic farming practices” that prohibit the use of any synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides,” said Minestra. The ETHS program has become Naturally Grown Certified and has also earned Wildlife Habitat Certification through the National Wildlife Federation “by providing essential elements of a wildlife habitat including food, water, cover, and places to raise young,” she added. 

Minestra’s program extends beyond ETHS. District 65 contracts with ETHS to provide lunches for its students. During the Covid pandemic, which shut down all schools in Illinois for over a year, the ETHS nutrition staff provided “Monday Bags” to families that lacked access to school-based meals. Each week, up to 150 bags were prepared that each contained seven days of breakfasts and lunches (e.g., PBJ sandwiches, fruit, produce, etc. and milk). Any family could pick up a bag, no questions asked.

In addition, romaine lettuce from the gardens is used to make salads for the City of Evanston’s award-winning Summer Meal Program at nine local day camps. Any additional produce is sold to faculty, staff, and school board members during a 24-week summer/fall Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “This allows ETHS staff to support the garden,” said Ryan, “and leaves no waste.” This summer, ETHS partnered with a variety of local businesses to include discounts or coupons, occasional samples of fresh pesto or salsa, local unprocessed honey, “or just fun perks,” said Minestra, to add to the CSA boxes.

Going green has been a cost-saver for ETHS. By growing its own food and expanding its growing venues, ETHS has annually saved up to $20,000 in organic produce.

Photos: Amaya Bonn pruned cherry tomatoes while Karel Pene watered zucchini plants this summer in the Edible Acre on Dodge. 

B. Resident Remembers Kate Mahoney
Feb. 24, 2021
by Debbie Hillman

This is my celebration of the late Kate Mahoney, who was instrumental in the creation of EAPP in 2008 (Resident Remembers Kate Mahoney, Feb. 2021). As I say in my remembrance, EAPP may be a unique story in the annals of U.S. urban agriculture, not only because so many stars aligned at just the right moment, but also because the creation of EAPP can be boiled down to an anti-smoking campaign in which Kate and PEER Services (a substance abuse agency) played a cameo but starring role.

I’d like to document how Kate Mahoney & PEER Services intersected with my work on Food + Farms + Democracy to create a new community asset. In the history of U.S. urban agriculture and farm-to-school, it may be a unique story.

Across the street from the the main entrance to Evanston Township High School was an empty city lot, about 1/8 acre at the corner of Dodge & Davis. It was a long-time presence in ETHS culture because students would cross the street during breaks to sit there and smoke, thinking that they were not violating any school rule. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to most residents of Evanston, ETHS (District 202) does in fact own that empty lot, commonly known as The Log, and school administrators were responsible for enforcing the school’s no smoking policy at that site. It was a chronic headache for everyone.

In about 2008, the stars aligned to solve the problem by bringing PEER Services, ETHS, and the Evanston Food Policy Council together in creating the Edible Acre Pilot Project at Evanston Township High School. We quickly put a team together to find funding, design the site, add a water source, and build about 28 raised beds, some of which were to be reserved as plots for neighbors. 

C. Edible Acre Pilot Project: An Evanston Networking Story
by Debbie Hillman
Jan. 2022

In addition to Kate and the people and groups mentioned in The Kit article, this might be a good time to describe exactly how the “stars aligned” to create EAPP (based on my long-term memory which, at the age of 70-going-on-71 should probably be fact checked). 

The Edible Acre Pilot project is 12 years old, but it actually began 42 years go when the community networks — the “soil” — were being prepared. It starts with Family Focus, where I met Delores Holmes (Exec. Director) when my 1-year old daughter (Saya Hillman, a 1996 ETHS graduate) and I become regulars at the Family Focus Kingsley Center in 1979.

Fast forward to 2006 or 2007, when the stars aligned to plant the first seed:
— Delores was 5th Ward Alderwoman
— I was the co-founder of the Evanston Food Policy Council (the grassroots organization that created The Talking Farm in 2006)
— Carolina Pfister was a co-founder and Exec. Director of Boocoo Cultural Center (now the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center) and involved in Evanston’s sustainability networks, notably Network for Evanston’s Future (the precursor to Citizens Greener Evanston), of which the Evanston Food Policy Council was a member organization

Somehow Delores got talking to Carolina who told me that Delores was interested in creating a farmers market on the “west side” of Evanston. With a small parking lot across the street from Boocoo, at the energy center of the west side — Church & Dodge, kitty-corner from the high school — a partnership with Boocoo seemed a natural. Carolina, who was enrolled in the Leadership Evanston class (Evanston Community Foundation), used that opportunity to create a cohort of LE members to draft a farmers market plan. The West End Market was created.

Unfortunately, the timing coincided with (a) a huge growth in Illinois farmers markets so that farmers willing to come to a start-up market were hard to find, and (b) the “great” recession, e.g., a massive transfer of wealth from the many to the few. In other words, even as social service agencies and government officials were seeing more and more hunger, homelessness, and poverty, the system and people in power kept making things worse. 

For chronological reference, the current Illinois food security movement can be traced to the Illinois Food Security summits held in 2001-03, spearheaded by the Chicago Community Trust. Nationally, I date the food & farm movement to 1983-85 (the middle years of Reagan’s presidency) when urban people started waking up to problems in our food system and urban-rural coalitions started springing up, starting with:
—1983 creation of the first food policy council (FPC) in North America (Knoxville, TN)
—1985 creation of FarmAid, its first concert being in Champaign-Urbana, IL in September

But the West End Market lasted just long enough for Frank Kaminsky (former Evanston police chief who was then head of security at ETHS) to “offer” use of the vacant lot called The Log to West End Market if anyone wanted to grow food there. Although West End Market could not take advantage of the offer, word got passed to me as co-chair of the Evanston Food Policy Council and the first meeting of what became the Edible Acre materialized in Shelley Gates’s office (director of vocational training AKA careers). 

If I recall correctly, the people present at that first meeting (in person or behind the scenes) were: Shelley, Frank, Bill Stafford (Chief Financial Officer for ETHS, previously with City of Evanston), Evanston Food Policy Council (Linda Kruhmin, Debbie Hillman), Meghan Gibbons (ETHS food service director), Green Team, Community Service Club, Horticulture teacher, Senior Studies, PEER Services (Kate Mahoney), Summer Youth Employment Program.

The rest is, as we say, now history, which the ETHS Alumni Association captured in their Fall 2021 article.

Edible Acre homepage as of Jan. 2022 

Edible Acre I 
The Edible Acre, is a 5,000 square-foot garden developed in 2009. The garden is located across the street from the front entrance of the school, on Dodge Ave. During the growing season, April-November, the garden supplies between 2,200-3,000 pounds of produce. About 30 varieties are grown throughout the course of a year including root crops, greens, herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, and even edible flowers.

ETHS Greenhouse
The Greenhouse was incorporated into the Nutrition Services program in 2014. Since then, about 150 pounds of produce have been harvested annually. During the summer, when the outdoor gardens are active, the Greenhouse grows the seedlings for both Edible Acre Gardens and the Edible Wall. 

In summer 2019, the ETHS Foundation awarded a grant for a Greenhouse renovation, quadrupling the harvest as a result of the expansion.

Edible Orchard
In 2015, 25 fruit trees were planted near the ETHS football field on Church Street. There is a combination of Asian pear trees and a variety of apple trees.  

Edible Wall
In 2017, ETHS added a hydroponic grow wall to North Cafeteria. Items such as swiss chard and kale are harvested, totaling about 50 pounds. 

Edible Acre II 
Edible Acre II is located on Church Street, next to the Edible Orchard. During the summer of 2019, ETHS began the process of adding 14 raised beds, creating an additional 900 square feet of growing space. This area supplies romaine lettuce for every student salad until November.

Edible Towers 
In the fall of 2019, four tower gardens were added to our local program. These towers focus on herbs, particularly basil, to create students’ favorite pesto sauce.