Chicago community gardens resource for students to get cheap produce

Strolling down the produce aisle at the grocery store can be mesmerizing and daunting at the same time. Every fruit and vegetable looks ripe and perfectly in place, but pick up a box of blueberries in January and you’re looking at a $20 price tag on a few sour deflated balloons. 

The best way to ensure that produce is cheap, fresh and in-season is by growing it yourself. The prospect sounds simple enough unless you’re living in a big city where it seems like the only time you see a sprout is on an old potato.

Luckily, the Chicago Park District offers a range of community gardens located throughout several different neighborhoods where gardening enthusiasts can pay to have a small plot of their own. The gardens are classified as ornamental, edible or combination, and plots can be used to grow a variety of produce and ornamental plants.

This form of urban agriculture has been shown to benefit whole communities by improving air quality, reducing crime rates and just adding some natural color to a generally monochrome city. Each city garden makes a great deal of positive impact for both the neighborhood and the individual gardener.

Two men work in the Buffalo Seniors Inspirational Community Garden located in South Chicago
Photo credit of Samuel A. Love

These veggie oases are the perfect solution for a young students on a budget looking to add variety to a typical diet of Ramen and McDonald’s dollar menu cheeseburgers. Copeland Smith, a student at Columbia College Chicago, intends to start using the community resource in the approaching warmer months.

“I’m planning to grow a lot of my own produce this summer,” says Smith. “My goal is for my only grocery store purchases to be dairy and bread products.”

Smith plans to rely on her community garden for sustenance and fill her plot with tomatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, chard and lettuce as the temperatures become more tolerable for produce.

Although frost still covers the grass in the mornings, Smith has already began preparing her perspective plot at the El Yunque Community Garden located only a few blocks from her house in Humbolt Park.

“Now that it’s January, I’m starting to buy seeds and figure out the layout of my garden,” says Smith. “I’ve taken to Pinterest, hardcore. I have all sorts of growing guides to see what plants grow well together and when to start planting various seeds for their growing season.”

Smith is also drawn to the community garden for its economic benefits. She admits to having to invest some money up-front for gardening tools, but Smith expects that “over the course of the summer, having the garden will significantly bring down [her] grocery bill,” or at least give her a few extra bucks to buy what she wants.

Smith says, “I’ll probably still splurge at the farmers market on berries and other produce I can’t grow, but I would be doing that regardless of if I had a garden.”

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