In a small oasis in the heart of an impoverished community of 3500 people, Barb Willard (associate professor, Environmental Science & Studies and Communication) has kicked off DePaul’s urban agriculture program with her new service-learning class, “Urban and Sustainable Agriculture.”
At Eden Place — a 3.5 acre nature center in the middle of Fuller Park —DePaul students are participating in food production and community gardening. They’re examining agricultural practices for an urban environment, learning how to promote food security and access in an urban food desert, and setting the stage for future courses in this area of urgent interest.
The idea for the class began in 2010 with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Service Learning Grant whose stated goals were to identify environmental health issues that can occur in urban gardens through soil analysis, plant composition analysis, and heavy metal uptake analysis; to document food access and food security in the Fuller Park neighborhood; and to promote a farmers’ market, increase consumption of locally grown produce in Fuller Park, and encourage gardening (community and private) among Fuller Park residents.
But for DePaul, the grant held the promise of even more positive impacts, as Willard explains: “We saw the grant as a way to respond to the expressed interests of our students for an urban agriculture program, as well as an opportunity to deepen our relationship with Eden Place.”
From Waste to Wonder
The origin of Eden Place was one man’s desire to make a positive change, for the sake of his family and his neighborhood, by cleaning up an illegal dumpsite across the street from his home. Michael Howard — executive director of Fuller Park Community Development —acquired the deed for the lot in 1997 and engaged the community in a large-scale clean up: 200 tons of waste was removed from the dumpsite over a three-year period.
Since then, Eden Place has become a bio-diversified environment that includes a wetland, prairie, and woodland; it’s also a monarch butterfly habitat and a community garden. Recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Eden Place partners with local conservation organizations — such as Chicago Wilderness, Openlands, and NeighborSpace — to establish “green” space and improve the health and well-being of the neighborhood.
Dirt under Their Nails
In Willard’s class, students will augment classroom learning with 25 hours spent farming in Eden Place — making and using compost to warm a “hoop house” that extends the growing season by 3-4 months; educating students from Chicago Public School on composting techniques; caring for farm livestock, including goats, ponies, chickens, and ducks; and promoting a farmers’ market where they’ll sell fresh produce in an area that lacks ready access to nutritious food — all critical components of a comprehensive approach to sustainable urban agriculture.
“In this class, the study of urban food production is interactive and hands-on, integrating theory and practice,” says Willard. “Students will use Eden Place as a case study in organizing communities to create food security and access to healthy food systems. At the same time, the class really embodies DePaul’s mission of delivering Vincentian values in an urban setting,” says Willard. “We’ll have strong presence in Eden Place, and I hope we’ll leave our mark.”