An Interview with Ken Dunn, Urban Farmer
by Megan Isaacs, Alix Anne Shaw, and Liana Li
Compiled and written about by Megan Isaacs
This past February, Liana Li, Alix Anne Shaw and I met up at the Chicago Diner to talk with Ken Dunn. Dunn is the founder of City Farm and The Resource Center, a non-profit environmental education organization demonstrating innovative techniques for recycling and reusing materials. Our conversation started with him introducing a bit about himself and his philosophy about social change and art.
Ken – The human mind is a beautiful device to build systems and principles with which we evaluate things but we have gone a way where it is now failing us. We all have the values of justice and equality and believe in the equal sharing of our planet’s benefits, but something has happened that even though we hold these values, the systems we have in place are not achieving them. In fact, I think that we could recognize that as a society, we are bankrupt and that we don’t have the tools to help us move towards reaching the goals we all share and wish to achieve.
Alix – Can you talk a little bit more specifically about the work that you do?
Ken – When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was astonished at how impoverished the city was, and its inability to achieve equality and justice. I was looking to understand why we weren’t achieving environmental and social justice, and why our society was extremely damaging to the planet and certain groups of people. While poking around Woodlawn, I noticed that there was a serious lack of jobs and quality of life. So I focused my thesis work on how to better understand why we don’t have the tools to meet the values that we all identify with. I immediately saw that even the most impoverished communities were rich in resources. There were a lot of vacant lots, a lot of people eager to do something useful, and the vacant lots were littered with steel cans, glass bottles and paper. So I did an experiment and asked the guys hanging around parking lots to collect their bottles, and I would go sell the materials and split the money with them. This became a theme of mine both for my thesis at the university, as well as in starting the Resource Center, which became a sustainability non-profit with the idea that building a just and sustainable economy is possible if we recognize the resources that we have.
Alix – What do you do now at the Resource Center?
Ken – We still have the program for buying materials from collectors that pick up from vacant lots and alleys. We have eight trucks that pick up their collected material. And now we also have composting and urban agriculture. After we started cleaning up lots, I thought, “Hey! Let’s figure out another resource. Ah ha! What about food, garden and yard waste!” So we started making compost to create gardens on the very lots we cleaned up. And then I noticed that after a couple of years, the boys who were very involved in the gardening projects, especially when they got to be 10 or 12, started standing back from the gardens, thinking it was too feminine while they were watching the gang bangers making big bucks a couple blocks away. We needed something to tap into the youth’s need for power and speed. I knew there were a lot of discarded bikes in the city so we began collecting them and started a bike shop, Blackstone Bikes, which is still operational today.
Alix – Can you talk a little about how your urban agriculture program works? I understand that it employs people as well as teaches them how to grow their own food.
Ken – Early on, we discovered there is a clear distinction between community gardening and urban agriculture. Community gardening is about building community. Nobody should come and tell the lady who is planting peanuts like she used to plant them with her grandmother that her process doesn’t work in Chicago soils. She is reconnecting with her roots, and she will learn from experience that in Chicago you don’t plant on the hill, you plant in the pearl instead. Community gardens build community and only somewhat supplements what is on the table.
Urban agriculture recognizes that not everyone can produce all of their food or should even try. People should have jobs so they can produce a lot of food and sell it to support their rent and everyday lifestyles. Urban agriculture became the discipline of discovering how to produce enough so at least four people could work on a farm and make enough money to get days off and take vacations and even get sick, which most subsistence farmers can never do.
Megan – How many vacant lots exist in Chicago?
Ken – Approximately 80,000 lots, which is about 40,000 acres.
Megan – If all 80,000 lots were working within your model, and actively producing, would they be able to feed the city of Chicago?
Ken – Yes, the production on 40,000 acres would take care of our food needs, but only alongside a great dietary and cultural shift. People must get back to vegetables and we are also going to have to shift more towards root crops, which can be stored through the winter. It is still expensive to the environment to can and freeze food so we will have to have root cellars.
Alix – Speaking of food, Liana mentioned that you recently started a program to pick up the wasted food from Whole Foods and redistribute it. I am interested because while living in Providence where I started a gleaning program from the local farmers’ market. At the end of the day, farmers would donate what they didn’t want or couldn’t sell, and we took vegetables to the local soup kitchen. Could you talk a bit about how your program works?
Ken – We have been doing this for over 20 years because all agricultural production has surplus. You plant more than you can sell in case you have a bad crop so you can at least meet the demand. And then there are also seconds, the things that you wouldn’t sell to high-end customers, for example vegetables that are too small or the wrong shape. So we started a route to distribute these extras just to salvage our own product. Then we began noticing that homeless shelters became dependent on our deliveries, so we started connecting with grocery stores so we could deliver excess food throughout the year. Whole Foods pulls products from their shelves the day before their expiration date and we now have a van that picks up three tons of food every day and distributes it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
Megan – How much of the food that you are unable to distribute ends up in landfills?
Ken – Produce markets send about 60-80 truckloads a day. Sometimes if someone misjudges a truck’s arrival date, there will be soft tomato in each case and the whole thing goes to the landfill if we don’t get access to it. We are moving towards starting another van because there is plenty of demand. We think that urban agriculture and community gardens are the way to go to build a viable Chicago. We have plenty of vacant space and a workforce that benefits from being outdoors and productive. But we also need community healing as much as anything else. Whole communities have gotten into bad habits, in eating as well as in lacking tradition and community. A theory that I am fond of is that community and civility were built on agriculture because agriculture is so pleasing and so productive.
I also would like to get a large warehouse where we would receive all of that wasted food. One of our goals is to have an active farm stand at every farm. If food desert communities were be filled with farms rather than vacant lots, everyone could at least walk to a farm stand to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The limited production of these small farms could then be supplemented with goods like salvaged bananas, oranges and tomatoes from grocery stores and produce markets.
Alix – What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to change their relationships in the way we have been talking about?
Ken – Follow your money and go for the joy. Petroleum is the main ingredient of the money we spend. We consumers pay for the petroleum invested in strawberries that come from New Zealand. So start with watching your money but recognize that you don’t have to jump in all the way. You need to get used to the pleasures of being more responsible. If you like biking, can you drive a little less and bike a little more? Or look at your food habits. Do you like cooking with friends and can you start buying within 100 miles? Look at the whole picture and find something that you know you will get pleasure out of. Absolutely drop the notion that you have an obligation to go back to a more dreary lifestyle. Look for the 10% of sustainability, like eating more with friends and biking a little more, that you would really enjoy. Don’t even think of the burdens. Go for the joy.
Megan – You mentioned earlier that you don’t see yourself as an agent of change. I’m wondering how you see this when you are constantly expanding your reach and starting up new gardens?
Ken – The key is to listen more than you talk. My role is to listen and then help by building a narrative that leaves toward action. And then when it comes to action, some of the ingredients of the action, like the compost, or the truck that hauls away the recycling or garbage, come with no fanfare. The appearance of resources is sort of magical. I don’t come in with a sign that says, “This compost is provided by the Resource Center” or say “If you do this for me, I will take away your garbage.” I also don’t emphasize the cost of the resources I bring. For a project to be owned by a community, it has to be owned from day one. They perceive their own cleanup as worth more than the truck hauling away the recycling or the compost. Their own work spreading the compost is worth more than me delivering the compost. The compost appears during off hours and is forgotten about, but it as the key ingredient a community uses to transform a vacant lot into a farm. And instead of giving just 2-3 inches deep of compost, I do it generously.
The great social aspect of this project is that it injures no people. It comes with the assumption that all people have the desire to live in a community with good quality of life and pre-developed values. We shouldn’t go in there with recipes for the dishes they should be using or how they should arrange community meals. Given the modern community, even though it is despoiled and not functioning well at all, we can give them a little source from which to create value. They will create the institutions and structures appropriate to their own memories and early experiences. That is a respectful rejuvenation of a community rather than going in and bringing in counselors on family relations and cooking classes on what foods to eat. Just bring richness and the availability of good produce.
Megan – Are there any other projects you are currently working on, and how can people get involved with them?
Ken – Our most recent involvement is working with the Washington Park Consortium on the [hyperlink: facebook.com/squaremileofsustainability] Square Mile of Sustainability in Washington Park, where there is an abundance of unutilized lots and low employment. We are working on a farm at the corner of 57th & Perry that will offer good food and jobs to local residents, and hoping to make better use of more lots. We’re looking for passionate people to help with the project, and we have volunteer days every other weekend.
To get involved with Square Mile of Sustainability check out our facebook page