BRONZEVILLE — A South Side community farm is gearing up for its newest season, ready to welcome more volunteers and donors to support the burgeoning operation growing thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the area.
Just Roots launched on a small plot on 45th Street before setting up at 2936 S. Wabash Ave., on a lot next to Saint James Catholic Church and Food Pantry in 2020.
Through partnerships with schools and food pantries, food stands and its paid community supported agriculture program, Just Roots puts around 10,000 pounds of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs back into the community each year, organizers said.
Trellises for the tomato vines have been installed, and the team is planting the seeds for a cornucopia of peppers, spinach, swiss chard and eggplants. Volunteers are laying gravel inside the hoop house, where the season’s farm-to-table dinners curated by local chefs will be held.
It’s all part of founder’s Sean Ruane’s vision where community, education and food access intersect.
‘We do need food to stay where it’s grown’
In 2017, Ruane, a former high school teacher, decided the best way to honor his Irish farming heritage was to start a farm.
He’d already been doing community work with The Kitchen Community to build over 200 gardens at Chicago public schools. In speaking with teachers and principals, Ruane would hear a common refrain: Food access. Education. A lot of the schools were in neighborhoods in which fresh produce was hard to come by. It was important, then, to create a space where people could receive both, he said.
Ruane started with a modest plot of land on 45th and Federal streets. He worked a full-time job while building the farm, which was all-volunteer run. Just Farms teamed up with neighborhood schools like Drake Elementary, 2710 S. Dearborn St, teaching students about nutrition while supplying them with fruits and vegetables.
“I thought that we could take that and build it on a bigger scale and actually grow food on a meaningful scale, and be entrenched in the community,” said Ruane, who comes from a family of South Siders. “Through the Windy City Harvest program, they have an option where once you finish the program you can start an incubator farm business class.”
The Windy City Harvest program gave Ruane two to three years to get it off the ground. If it didn’t work out, the farm would’ve gone on hiatus, Ruane said.
As he was on the hunt for another location, Saint James leaders with whom the farm had formed a relationship with in its first year reached out, eager to offer the lot adjacent to where the church’s original building stood before being demolished in 2013. Just Roots was in the process of moving when the pandemic hit but the team was determined to make the expansion a reality, Ruane said.
From a small plot, Just Roots grew to an 18,000-square-foot space. The group has hundreds of volunteers, whom Ruane can now pay for their time. He spends $50,000 a year to keep the farm going.
Beverly Price is one of those volunteers.
A “country girl in a big city” drawn to the great outdoors, Price said she’d always found peace tending to the tomatoes in her garden. Then, Just Roots board member Tamara Reed Tran recruited her to join the organization.
The Just Roots team’s vision intrigued the television producer, who had been looking to get more involved in the community. What really struck her was seeing people from all walks gather on the land — tucked away in the shadow of the CTA Green Line tracks — to lend a hand, from sororities passing out coffee and doughnuts to volunteers to college students planting onion seedlings.
Talking to donors and getting more people on board was all well and good, but Price said she wanted to do more. So Price dove into the gardening itself. There was something about putting her hands in the dirt that was both transformational and cathartic, she said.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was. I had romanticized it because I have a small garden, but it’s a lot of work. I applaud people for being committed to it,” Price said.
Tran also started as a volunteer before becoming a board member. She was fundraising for another nonprofit organization partnering with the Chicago Botanic Garden on grants when Tran’s pastor, Rev. Melody Seaton at Grace United Church of Christ, mentioned she wanted to create programming to engage young people and those formerly incarcerated.
When Tran connected Ruane with Seaton, the two hit it off.
“He took it from there. Sean has no fear,” Tran said.
“When we sat down with Reverend Mel, it was like that gut feeling that said it felt right, that it needed to happen. Like, providence,” Ruane said.
Now, in its fifth year, Just Roots has more collaborations with local universities and hospitals to support its work.
Students from the Illinois Institute of Technology are working on a design project on the site and Just Roots is partnering with the University of Illinois at Chicago to support their diabetes prevention work, providing food access and educational programming.
There’s also “Fresh Food Pharmacy,” a partnership between the farm and La Rabida Children’s Hospital to provide families with food access, nutritional guides and cooking workshops along with Common Threads.
Just Roots also has expanded to south suburban Sauk Village, building a 3-acre farm to support an area hit hard by the economy and the exodus of Black residents.
“During the Victory Garden era, Chicago was producing 40 percent of its own vegetables. We live in a different world now, and I’m not saying we need to go back to the 1940s, but we do need food to stay where it’s grown,” Ruane said.
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