Sustainable Business: Growing Home Gives Roots to Those in Need

October 31, 2013

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Growing Home Inc. is more than a producer of local, organic produce. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Tim Murakami, Growing Home’s Urban Farm Manager. Murakami is responsible for the production and business aspect of Growing Home’s urban farms based in Chicago, IL, but Growing Home primarily functions as a job training program. Founded in 1996 by Les Brown, Growing Home was launched to provide job training to Chicagoans in need. Brown was inspired by his work at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to provide individuals in transition with a sense of purpose and the chance to break the cycle of homelessness. Brown passed away in 2005, but his mission lives on. 

Growing Home currently operates four sites—a ten-acre farm in Marseilles, IL and three urban sites in the city of Chicago. Two of the gardens are next door to each other in the West Englewood neighborhood, while the other is about one mile away and works in partnership with another organization, Su Casa. Murakami explained, “Growing Home operates in three main ways: job training, organic urban agriculture, and community development.” Their work in the Englewood neighborhood is part of Teamwork Englewood, an initiative formed in 2003 as part of the New Communities Program, to unite organizations working in the neighborhood to build a stronger community and promote healthy lifestyles for residents. “Our Englewood location is important to our mission; it brings fresh produce to an area [in which it is] otherwise scarce,” said Murakami.

The urban farms are managed by Growing Home’s interns in the work development program. The interns come from diverse areas, some within the Englewood neighborhood, but primarily from work referral and social service agencies across the city. Growing Home works with 40 interns a year who complete a 14-week program during growing season. All interns attend an informational session and complete an application before they are accepted into the program. Murakami explains that a typical work day consists of onsite work from 8:00 am-12:00 pm, followed by classroom time from 12:30 pm-2:30 pm.

“Are people learning to be farmers? Certainly not,” says Murakami, but “through working at Growing Home interns gain the skills to transition into good, unsubsidized paying jobs.” This is why Growing Home also has a full-time employment specialist on staff, who provides support and makes recommendations and referrals. Interns receive supportive instruction in resume-writing, computer skills, and legal aid. When interns are working onsite, they help operate the fully functioning organic farm. “Interns cultivate and instill characteristics that other employers are looking for,” said Murakami, “Including how to be punctual, work with attention to detail, how to work quickly, efficiently, and hold themselves to high standards.” 

“This year in particular, interns have had great success with securing jobs at food distributors and manufacturers,” says Murakami. Growing Home’s workforce development program stands out because of its focus on the transformational possibilities in learning how to plant and nurture one’s own food. Local, healthy food systems are integrated into the curriculum. and interns learn to take responsibility for the care of their plants, producing a sense of growth and connection. Growing Home’s produce can be found at Chicago’s Green City Market, Wood Street Farm Stand, Les Brown Memorial Farm Stand, in local restaurants, or through their CSA subscription.

Growing Home is in the process of a new strategic plan, and looks forward to the expansion of their sites and more interns graduating from their workforce development program in the future. 

Businesses that uphold sustainable practices in how they source, produce, and serve or sell food play a crucial role in transforming the food system. Food Tank will regularly feature businesses that are providing food to their customers in environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable ways.

Tags: Food, growing food, horticultural training, Social justice, sustainable food