Urban farming coming to Austin

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Politicians and community groups gathered in Austin last week to break ground on a community farm they hope will provide badly needed fresh produce to the West Side and educate residents on the importance of good nutrition.

The project, which is being funded by a $350,000 grant from Humana Foundation, will be located on an 8,000-square-foot lot across the street from the PCC Community Wellness Center, 5425 W. Lake St.

PCC President and CEO Robert Urso said the farm will be a step in combating the scarcity of fresh produce in Austin, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated as a “food desert” because the area does not have easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.

“PCC is building this farm so that our patients will have the opportunity to make the type of healthy choices our providers recommend,” Urso said Wednesday, Oct. 29 before officials picked up shovels for a ceremonial ground breaking.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, an Austin resident, said the farm is an example of the future of urban gardening, which he predicts will be an ongoing, affordable source of fresh produce to neighborhoods whose residents can’t afford supermarket prices.

“Those choices have been unavailable because grocers charge prices that low-income families cannot afford, resulting in the grocers simply not selling fresh produce in low-income areas,” Davis said.

PCC will run the farm in coordination with Windy City Harvest, an arm of the Chicago Botanic Garden that educates at-risk youth from low-income areas in farming techniques and employs them at local urban farms.

PCC will identify two people to enroll in Windy City Harvest’s apprenticeship program, which will prepare them to compete for the Austin farm’s seasonal coordinator job.

Daniel Davis, who’s been involved with Windy City Harvest for two and a half months, said it isn’t enough that Austin residents have healthy alternatives; they also need to be educated enough to know what choices to make.

“No one knows what to shop for,” Davis said. “If you don’t know how to eat fresh, eat healthy when you go to the grocery store, how do you know what vegetables to choose?”

Davis, who said he did not learn about nutrition while going to school, said working at the farm will help residents learn proper nutrition and help them make better food choices.

“I believe it will help a whole lot,” Davis said. “Since I started I’ve been eating a lot more healthy; I don’t really eat fried foods anymore, and I eat a lot of fresh vegetables.”

William Snyder, Humana’s market vice president for Illinois, said the grant will be doled out in three installments over three years. PCC Wellness beat two other finalists to win the grant.

“We’ll work closely with them, and they’ll continue to show their evolving business plan,” Snyder said.

Longtime Austin resident Velda Brunner lives across the now empty lot.

She and her neighbors were happy when PCC purchased the property, which had been strewn with trash.

And she’ll be happy next year when the first batch of produce gets picked.

“It’s a blessing,” Brunner said.


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