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Erika Allen, Urban Growers Collective Cultivating Food Justice

Erika Allen has always been on a mission. The co-founder of Urban Growers Collective, a nonprofit founded in 2017 providing access to community-based food systems across the Chicagoland area, is nothing if not serious about her calling in life: food justice. 

When she speaks about her work, she draws from a deep well of knowledge borne of experience and conviction that feels rare. Her 20-year career in the food justice arena is something to be admired and, more importantly, celebrated, although Allen may disagree. 

She doesn’t have time to look back, it seems. There is too much work to do.

“I grew up on a small family farm, no off-farm labor, growing vegetables to help my family just have supplemental income,” she explains to Garden & Health, giving a glimpse into her formative years that brought her to her work today. “Then I moved to Chicago to go to art school. So, I’m an artist, I have a BFA, and then I have an MA in art psychotherapy. And I really started my career wanting to do intervention work using art therapy for alternative sentencing for juveniles.”

Photo Courtesy Erika Allen

Around 2001, while working in art therapy, Allen began to see a different area of need and felt drawn to fill it. 

“I realized how food insecure everybody was and that the communities I was working in were most vulnerable,” she said.

“And I just saw an opportunity to begin growing food in cities as both an actionable problem-solving pathway for youth employment and to just, you know, provide nutritional density and public health services in our communities.”

From this small realization that spurred action, Allen began to explore the roots of food injustice in addition to addressing the actual problem.

“But also to begin asking the questions as to why there are such inequities — why there’s food apartheid,” Allen said. “Why are we so disconnected from our food system? And what has the historic land loss to African Americans and indigenous people … how is that netted itself in such a huge wealth gap?” 

“So, food and food systems ended up being a lens that I could really examine some of those larger social root causes and practically do something that is like, you know, addresses the issue,” she continued.

Photo Courtesy Urban Growers Collective

Practical solutions are what Allen and Urban Growers Collective are all about. 

“It’s kind of broken into three areas. So, there’s food pathways, where people are able to access food through the Fresh Foods Market, which is a mobile market that goes to 30 different sites that people can purchase the produce that we both grow on the farms,” she explained, laying out the nonprofit’s work. “And [we] also work with other farmers and a really great wholesaler to bring basically the grocery aisle to communities that don’t have full-service grocery stores or affordable produce; we call them food apartheid communities.” 

“We also have our eight farms. Two of them have farm stands multiple days a week where people can just come right to the farm and purchase produce,” she continued.

“And then we also have a CSA or community-supported agriculture, collective supported agriculture, where people pay a weekly flat fee and just get a share of all the things that we’re growing on the farm. And so those are the main ways that we kind of connect the food that we’re growing to our communities.”

Photo Courtesy Erika Allen

Urban Growers Collective also offers education for growers of all kinds and ages to learn about the food they are consuming and how to grow it and support their communities. When asked how others can get involved and help, Allen has a simple yet effective reply.

Volunteer, volunteer, yeah, volunteer. Come in to do some, and it might be pulling weeds, and that’s helpful. And if you’re not up for volunteering, just go shopping — we just kind of don’t complain about prices,” she says with a chuckle, “Where’s the money going? It’s going to that farmer. Anytime that the person who makes the thing gets all the money is nothing but good.”

“Nothing but good” seems to accurately describe what Allen and Urban Growers Collective are doing in their community. 

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