A new urban agriculture program in the works at Daley College’s West Side Technical Institute could put the City Colleges of Chicago on the leading edge of a movement to grow more produce in cities.
Working with the Chicago Botanic Garden, students in the program would get six months of hands-on training in greenhouse agriculture, followed by a three-month paid internship in the field, says Patsy Benveniste, a vice president at the botanic garden.
“We and lots of other folks who are in sort of the sustainable landscaping and urban agriculture movement think that we are sort of at the beginning of a wave,” Benveniste says.
Assuming the city colleges get approval for the program from the Illinois Community College Board, as many as 15 students could join the first cohort in January, college officials say. The number is small, but it’s limited by the size of the greenhouses on campus, since much of the program involves working with the plants themselves.
“The students are involved not just in the cultivating of the produce,” says Maria Codina, the director of the West Side Technical Institute. “They are also taught how to distribute, how to sell this product.”
The new program started out as a similar pilot project in September 2007 with 14 students, many of whom had been recently incarcerated, Benveniste says. Only five completed that program, in part because it offered only part-time paid work and several students found full-time jobs.
The new program, once approved, will be a “reformulation,” she says, that targets students in their 20s.
“We had to make sure that we had a full career path so that the students would not just end up working as a gardener or a nursery worker, but to move on up to an associate’s degree,” says Jean Johnson, the dean of continuing education at the school.
The program is fairly unique among community colleges in the region, especially with the partnership with the botanic gardens. Staff members from the garden will provide most of the instruction to students in the program at West Side Technical Institute, Benveniste says.
The produce grown in last year’s pilot program was sold to several restaurants in the city and at farmer’s markets. Those aspects are ones that the new program will expand on.
And with the skills students gain, the program’s backers envision graduates doing everything from designing urban streetscapes with native plants to creating rooftop gardens and greenhouses to feed nearby residents.
“It’s going to have to be a way of life, that’s my personal opinion, so that we all are able to grow our own food,” Johnson says.
Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.