Erika Allen received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Erika has provided project planning, community food systems design and direct marketing training for thousands of new and limited resource farmers and local food pioneers to strengthen farm businesses. She actively works to create healthy and diverse food options in inner-urban city and rural communities.
Erika Allen discusses how Chicago's urban agriculture strengthens community-based food security by shifting its food system toward more local and sustainable operations.
Douglas Gayeton: Is urban agriculture in Chicago now pretty developed?
Erika Allen: Yes, there’s a definite consciousness about it, as far as focusing on food security and producing elemental, sustainable food you can eat. We’re also trying to move into becoming more of a community-based economy. There are a few different forces at play with moving to that next level, from getting folks acclimated and developing the infrastructure to the actual building of a food economy that differs from what we have now. It’s a new way of doing business, one where we want to empower the community in a way that can generate cash flow and greater self-sufficiency.
Douglas Gayeton: Why is it so important set aside land for urban farming?
Erika Allen: It’s a food security issue. A homeland security issue. If there were an emergency, there’d be just no food. In neighborhoods there are ”food deserts”, places where you have really startling deficits of full service grocery stores, high crime, high unemployment, diet related illness, high incarceration, and on top of that, issues of race. That’s an intense constellation of issues that need to be addressed in a really profound way.
For us, farmland activates the space in a nurturing, productive way, where there are boundaries and discipline within the context of the art of growing. You can build a lot around farmland if it’s done in a strategic way.
Douglas Gayeton: How do people distinguish between "food security" and "food sovereignty"?
Erika Allen: "Food security” is about how secure your food system is, so if things fall apart, you still have food. I don’t think we’ve achieved that yet. "Food sovereignty" touches on the root causes of food insecurity, which starts to address the other imbalances or justice components creating that kind of disparity. It’s a combination of human rights, land rights, water rights, cultural preservation, and being sovereign, meaning you are your own entity. Food should not be used as leverage; food should be accessible to everybody, and it should be culturally appropriate.
Douglas Gayeton: What would it take for your own community in Chicago to be food secure?
Erika Allen: It has to be a concerted effort, one that hits every element of how we think about living in the city. People started living in cities precisely for food and security; somehow that was forgotten. The highways exist as a way to move food and materials around — part of our Department of Defense. You have to have land, fertility, and some infrastructure. It has to be really simple, a basic loop, and then it can become more sophisticated after that baseline is figured out.
We want to grow a product from the earth that has value, so we can sell it to all communities that need it and use the profit to pay the people who do the work providing that economic security. Meanwhile, we are educating people who have been cut off from good food on how to prepare it and why it’s important to eat it.
That culinary and nutrition education is part of this work as well. It’s also important to incorporate the healing arts since many people are quite traumatized in Chicago by the prevalence of violence. If people don’t have resources, and the little resources they do have are cut off, people explode. Reestablishing a food system is one of the ways to heal and provide resources. Everyone eats, so no matter the issues, if we can make sure people get three healthy square meals a day people can problem-solve and think better. Very simple approaches and very sophisticated multi- disciplinary, multi-sector cooperation are required for our community's food security.
Douglas Gayeton: If you’re trying to create food security in an urban area and provide equitable access to food, are people better served by more supermarkets or by having farms in the urban center?
Erika Allen: I'm actively engaged with the administration on trying to get full service grocery stores, and it’s really hard. You’re getting these secondary stores like Save-A-Lots or Aldi. That’s the baseline. A person can go and get the basics like dish liquid and meat, eggs and pasta, and not have to travel a crazy amount of time to get it even though it’s not the highest quality food. But couple that with an emerging urban agriculture industry that is located in areas where there is lots of open, vacant space and you’re able to provide that super local, fresh food while employing folks and activating the community.