Cheryl Muñoz is the founder and director of The Sugar Beet Co-op and Schoolhouse, two projects that work in tandem to provide access to local, sustainably grown food through a community-owned grocery store and a nonprofit organization that offers programming and educational experiences that inspire people to connect with their local food system.
Catch Cheryl’s seminar, “Creating Community Through Edible Gardening,” Saturday, March 15 at 12:30 p.m. at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show.
Hungry to grow healthy food for my family, I resorted to tearing out the lawn of our little bungalow in Oak Park in the spring of 2012. I loved the idea of planting a Victory Garden but had no idea how to do it. The backyard was already home to tomato plants and pots for lettuces but it was also home to the Slip ‘n Slide and kiddie pool. I wanted a safer place for my little farm away from the kids’ play area and closer to the morning sun…and my community.
I am lucky to live on a sweet little block in Oak Park with a community center, athletic field and playground across the street from my house. In all weather, people are walking dogs, jogging, walking kids to preschool or the park and many of them pass by my house. My mini farm out front became a stopping point as I began the incredible task of planning paths and planting starts into the rich compost. As I worked in my garden, people would pause on their morning run to give advice or just shout, “looks good” as they jogged by. Other parents in the neighborhood brought their kids over to see what I was up to and they helped shape paths with bricks and stones while I weeded and watered.
Bringing food production back to our gardens and kitchens is such a simple yet vital step towards creating sustainable communities. Not just sustainable in ways that are tangible, like improved soil quality and conserved energy, but sustainable in ways that improve our quality of life and our relationships. Like so many things worth learning, growing food is best learned from a friend. Only from hand-to-hand can growers pass on the most intimate details and observations of the natural world. Growing requires a community of teachers and students willing to kneel in the soil together, side by side, sharing a collective narrative and knowledge.
That spring, as I worked to gain an understanding of the very basics of food production, I sought out other food growers in my community. They were pretty easy to find. Biking around town, I looked for trellises ready to support vining beans, tomatoes and grapes and raised beds sprouting young lettuces and greens. By stopping and saying hello, I was often welcomed to “take a peek” and was given a tour. My children were welcomed, too, and as they played I would learn valuable lessons and tips that I would take back to my garden to try. As if the gifts of knowledge and time were not enough, I always left with greens to taste, a young plant to transfer or a packet of seeds. Gardeners are a generous bunch.
It was their generosity that inspired me to create The Sugar Beet Co-op Edible Garden Tour that year. I asked the gardeners that I had met if they would be willing to welcome people into their yards for tours and they were all so enthusiastic to participate and help build the event. Over the summer, I identified 15 gardens for the tour and on a beautiful day in late July, over 120 tour participants visited the various gardens to learn everything from biodynamic gardening techniques to chicken keeping. There were peaches to eat and tastings of melons and other garden fresh produce along the route and some gardeners made signs and handed out information about their growing methods. It was intended to be a casual, self-guided day of discovery and skill-sharing and we all considered it a huge success to see families exploring garden beds and chicken coops together.
The public’s response was so positive that we formed a formal committee led by some of the gardeners and in 2013 The Edible Garden Tour was even better with over 300 people attending. As we plan for the 2014 tour, we are inspired to link with neighboring communities and offer workshops and garden material exchanges to further grow our capacity to skill-share and connect with each other. It’s an all-volunteer effort that requires months of planning and research but we enjoy the work and the results and relationships we are building are rich and rewarding.
There is no doubt in my mind that gardening is one of the most accessible and effective ways of creating a vibrant and strong sense of community identity—regardless of whether you live in the middle of the city or a small rural town. The act of coming together to grow food and transform a piece of land into a vibrant and useful place that feeds us in many ways is possible and a powerful step towards building a sustainable community.
Save the date for the 2014 Sugar Beet Co-op Edible Tour Saturday July 26 to learn more about The Sugar Beet Co-op visit www.sugarbeetcoop.com.
Photographs provided by the author and the Sugar Beet Co-op Edible Tour.
(Photographer: Susanne Fairfax Media)