Harvests of an Urban Farm Help Immigrant Farmers Reap Income and Food Security in the Windy City

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Harvests of an Urban Farm Help Immigrant Farmers Reap Income and Food Security in the Windy City


That wise saying about teaching a man to fish and he'll not go wanting has been tweaked slightly by Marta Pereyra who, for the past year and a half, has been running RAPP (the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program), a popular and successful urban farm program in Chicago for refugees. In a newer version of this wisdom, the refugees already know how to farm, but need help with temperate climate methods and negotiating local food distribution systems.

Begun in 2010 with a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and operated under the auspices of CLESE (Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly), RAPP's aim is to promote health and economic independence in refugees from countries with strong agricultural traditions, giving refugees a small plot of land to farm and teaching them practical English skills related to business and farming. Farmers harvest the vegetables for their own consumption, or sell them at local farmers markets.

A Coalition that Busts Cultural Barriers

One out of eight immigrants to northeastern Illinois is age 60 or older, and, according to Pereyra, CLESE's executive director, it is a different, more difficult adjustment for this population than it is for those who emigrate at a younger age. More than two decades ago, the city of Chicago conducted an elderly needs assessment, which revealed that this immigrant population of elders existed, and they weren't receiving services because of language and cultural barriers. Twelve agencies worked with the city, banding together in 1989 to create CLESE.

For the past 24 years, CLESE's mission has been to overcome barriers to services for those immigrants who cannot speak English and, therefore, cannot advocate for themselves. CLESE now serves 100,000 older adults in northeastern Illinois, northern Illinois and pockets in Urbana and Peoria where there are "lots of folks from Africa, and Lebanon," Pereyra says. And the coalition currently boasts 61 nonprofits, for-profits and partially forprofit, community-based social service agencies serving a wide variety of clients.

Living Off the Land, Urban-Style

RAPP's acre-and-a-half farm, called the Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm, sits at a busy intersection in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood, on a site that was formerly an ugly, garbage-strewn lot. Now there are 164 individual plots allotted to refugees who hail mainly from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, East Africa and Iraq. The lot also has a common area, reserved for farming instruction. Any income from produce grown in this common area is plowed back into the project.

The RAPP model is geared toward the most recently emigrated (sometimes illiterate) refugee population. Pereyra says the idea was to "work with older adults who are coming [to this country] because they have to, not because they want to. …

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