ENGLEWOOD — When Whole Foods announced its Englewood store would close, an Englewood native had an idea to galvanize young people for community good.
Kenneth Griffin, a police officer, chef and founder of nonprofit No Matter What, built a fence with a local teen around a vacant lot at 6505 S. Bishop St. Then, with no experience in gardening, he gathered more teens and police officers and built a thriving community garden on the land this summer.
The Denzel Thornton Memorial Garden, named after Griffin’s friend who was fatally shot in 2016, is no replacement for the Whole Foods, which closes Sunday, Griffin said. But Griffin thought: What better way to teach youth to advocate for their futures than to learn how to grow the fresh food being snatched from their community?
As the garden closes for the season, Griffin, who was born in, raised and still calls Englewood home, said he looks forward to scaling up and growing more fruits and vegetables in the heart of the neighborhood.
“Our youth learned you don’t have to go to the grocery store to get your fruit and vegetables,” Griffin said. “You can make a difference in your backyard.”
‘This Is Exactly What We Needed’
Griffin started the garden with no experience in gardening, he said.
Griffin launched nonprofit No Matter What in 2015 to create proactive programs for young people, teach job readiness, encourage mental health healing, provide mentorship and lay the groundwork for their futures.
No Matter What received an $8,000 grant this year from the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities program. The money supported Griffin’s effort to teach youth woodwork, gardening and cooking, he said.
Griffin learned woodwork from a young age from his father, he said.
Culinary skills were also a breeze — he attended the Washburn Culinary Institute and worked as a chef at Walt Disney World in Florida for years before returning to Chicago and becoming a police officer, he said.
To learn gardening, Griffin turned to YouTube. Hours of videos taught him what he needed to know, he said.
“We have $1 million in our pockets, but we use it to call each other ugly on social media when we can be creating avenues for ourselves,” Griffin said. “That’s a staple message at No Matter What. We have these phones, and we’re on Facebook and Instagram all day looking at statuses and celebrity life.
“If we go on Youtube, we can spend an hour every day learning something that can help us and our lives.”
Once Griffin learned the groundwork, he went door to door with students asking Englewood neighbors what they wanted in their garden, he said. Cucumbers, tomatoes and collard greens were popular answers, he said.
By June, seven fellow officers and 25 students in the Youth District Advisory Committee — a One Summer Chicago program that pays youth to work alongside police officers — joined Griffin to plant five garden beds with vegetables and flowers, he said.
Young people learned about soil fertility to create nutritious food and the value of bees as pollinators, Griffin said. In a peace circle at the garden, organizers encouraged open discussions about the relationship between the community and police officers, Griffin said.
In late October, the community garden hosted a harvest day. Herbs, fruit, peppers, lettuce, spinach, collard greens and “about 100 tomatoes” sprouted in the garden, Griffin said. The nonprofit packaged 30 bags of assorted goods and gave them out for free, he said.
The garden became a safe place where the soil and the community were nurtured, Griffin said.
“I looked around one day, and I saw all the kids at work, and I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly what we needed,’” Griffin said. “The violence and crime in Chicago are largely blamed on our youth. I realized you could show me the same kid that terrorizes a community, and I’ll show you how the community terrorizes him with a lack of resources.
“We needed to be a resource for these young people to be able to do something.”
The garden joins a growing network of grassroots South Side community gardens and urban farms, many of which launched with similar aims to boost access to fresh food, nurture the land and bring resources to the area.
About a mile north on Loomis Street, Black-woman-led Sistas in the Village launched a farm at the height of the pandemic when Englewood neighbors needed help the most, one of its co-founders said.
That grew out of the co-founders’ previous work with Urban Growers Collective, a Black- and women-led nonprofit that builds equitable food systems; and Grow Greater Englewood, a community organization that develops local food economies.
South Side master gardener Gregory Bratton has helped create dozens of urban farms across Chicago. Among them are I Grow Chicago’s Peace Garden, 6402 S. Honore Ave., and the rooftop garden at Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 S. Ingleside Ave., which produces 1,000 pounds of food every year.
Next year, Griffin’s nonprofit plans to fundraise to buy an abandoned building for a youth center and launch a book club that pays youth to fall in love with reading, he said.
The Denzel Thornton Memorial Garden will be back next summer, too, even though Whole Foods won’t, Griffin said. Next year, they hope to grow pumpkins and host a pumpkin patch for neighborhood kids, Griffin said.
For now, there are plenty more YouTube videos to watch.
“I have hope for our community,” Griffin said. “I hope our young people can see what I see in Chicago and get to a point where they start to care about the city they grew up in and leave the bubble they think they have to stay in. We can take advice and learn from each other to try to make Englewood and the world better.”
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