"It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s a proverb we think a lot about here at Whole Kids Foundation. Our mission to improve children’s nutrition and wellness only becomes a reality when we successfully partner with like-minded individuals, corporate and community partners and other nonprofits.
Can school gardens change lives? Absolutely!
Whole Kids Foundation has awarded 5,452 garden grants to K-12 schools and nonprofits in the U.S. and Canada since we began in 2011. And we’re raising funds now through our annual Growing Healthy Kids campaign to support even more!
Something our team discovered early on is that the opportunity to grow something good exists nearly everywhere — vacant urban lots, abandoned city golf courses, even old railroad lines. And that’s just where you’ll find Homan Rails Farm, in North Lawndale, Chicago.
A 2019 Garden Grant recipient, Homan Rails Farm is on an old rail line that once serviced Sears, Roebuck and Co. and is currently managed by Gardeneers, a longtime partner of Whole Kids Foundation and a Chicago nonprofit providing full-service, customized school garden programs. This large green space is approximately 5,000 square feet and includes five hoop houses and 10-raised beds. With a mission of serving the North Lawndale community, Homan Rails Farm has created successful collaborations for education, work and healthy eating.
Lessons in the Garden
Being in close proximity to two under-resourced schools — DRW College Prep and Holy Family Ministries School — has led to many unique opportunities to connect students to the farm. Not only are the schools helping to grow thousands of pounds of produce for their schools and community, they have integrated the farm into classroom curriculum to a create powerful learning center.
Selma Sims, agronomist and the manager of Homan Rails, and Erica Allen, the 9th-grade science teacher at DRW College Prep, have developed and implemented science lessons based on the farm. Once a week, students work on the farm during their biology class. “The biggest thing that the farm provides is the real-life example,” explained Selma. “It truly helps the stuff in the books come to life.”
So far, DRW students have planted, weeded, pruned, trellised and harvested crops. These experiences have been tied to biology lessons such as studying bacteria, plant transpiration and respiration, photosynthesis, protein synthesis and more.
Homan Rails also welcomes more than one hundred 5th-8th grade students from the neighboring Holy Family Ministries School each week. These students have planted more than 40 types of crops.
Making an Impact in the Community
Lessons on the farm don’t stop with biology. Students are also learning first-hand about food production and entrepreneurship through a farm stand and community workshops facilitated by Gardeneers.
The farm stand provides free, fresh produce from the gardens to the North Lawndale community once a week. Around 50 people visit the stand each time, and often all the produce is handed out by closing. If any food remains however, Homan Rails donates it to a local shelter. Since launching the farm stand this July, they have given away nearly six hundred pounds of produce!
The farm stand is managed by DRW students and a Gardeneers farm manager. In addition, some students are paid a stipend for their work because Gardeneers knows it’s important that the youth learn that growing food is a viable and valued profession. Students often harvest produce for the farm stand, as well as for their families. Soon a second farm stand will be open each week with students from Holy Family.
Homan Rails currently grows more than 60 different types of crops though it’s working to decrease that number to around 20 to better reflect the community’s wants and preferences. For example, collards, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers and some varieties of kale are in high demand. So, the farm is now working to grow more of those crops in more varieties. You’ll also find different varieties of eggplants, beans, peas, carrots, melons, pumpkins and other squashes, beets, radishes, turnips, onions, garlic, herbs and pollinator flowers and plants.
Seeds for Success
Homan Rails has also formed numerous partnerships with local organizations including the YMCA and Lincoln Park Zoo. Gardeneers also holds Resource Farm Days, where they host some of these local community organizations at the farm to bring health, wellness and nature together in one place.
“If you put in the work first with a good team, people will notice and everything else will find its way to you,” explains May Tsupros, co-founder and former executive director of Gardeneers. “Without the work of our youth, the community, our partner organizations and most of all our staff, the Homan Rails Farm would not be the space it is today.”
Full Steam Ahead
What’s next? The farm would like to get Gap certified, so it can provide food in both schools’ cafeterias. And that’s not all.
“We envision the farm being a place for the community as well as a space where Gardeneers can utilize this space for agro-tourism with farm-to-table dinners, growing and garden demonstrations and many more activities,” says May. “I see the farm being used as an urban-learning farm where anyone can come and learn about nature, where their food comes from and even this historical space.”
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