Cooperation Operation fights food desert in South Side neighborhood
Erin Delaney (from left) Justin Booz and Liz Nerat outside the community garden in Pullman. (July 22, 2013)
Not only was the lot--the former location of a Sherwin Williams processing plant-- severely contaminated with dangerous chemicals, but the empty, overgrown space adjacent to the Pullman railroad tracks also was a haven for drugs, crime, and murder.
That didn’t stop him and his friends, though.
“I would sneak out of my house in the middle of the night to come here and hang out with my friends and run around and play,” said Booz, who is now 25. “It was a great place to get into trouble. We’d jump on freight trains as they were going by and blow things up.”
In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediated the space, removing the majority of harmful chemicals, but the lot remained closed off from the neighborhood until this year, when Booz did something most twentysomethings usually try to avoid at all costs--he moved back home after in living California to start the Cooperation Operation, an 18-member team of young adults from various backgrounds who are working to transform Booz’s childhood playground into a community garden.
“Running away from my parents doesn’t create enough of a statement,” he joked. “I need to set up camp in their backyard.”
Booz said his decision to return to Pullman was spurred by his involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City.
“After all of the Occupy dust settled, a lot of us came to the conclusion that the most effective way you can make change in the world is by going back to where you’re from,” Booz said.
The core mission behind the Cooperation Operation—nicknamed “The Co Op Op”—is to provide fresh food to Pullman residents who normally have to travel at least a couple of miles outside their neighborhood--which is a known food desert--to visit a grocery store. Residents can also learn how to grow their own food at the garden. Every week the Co Op Op hosts work-share days for community members to spend time gardening in exchange for fresh food they can take home.
Co Op Op founding member Erin Delaney, 23, said there is a strong connection between access to fresh food and self-sufficiency, especially in a neighborhood like Pullman, which is so far removed from most of the city’s main resources.
“I am a really big proponent of seizing the knowledge of growing food and using that to empower yourself and your family,” Delaney said. “One of the best ways to curb personal and familial stress is to have good food around and have control of that food source.”
Only about eight months after Booz first started casually discussing the idea with friends, the project has already been incredibly successful, gaining far-reaching support from the surrounding community. That includes area 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, who had denied years of suggestions from community members--such as remaking the space into a baseball field or a dog park-- because of the cost it would require to redevelop and overhaul the land.
In contrast, the Co Op Op has been a low-cost endeavor. The group has repurposed old speedboats donated by a local community group to use as planters alongside additional raised beds on the lot’s 23,000-square-foot concrete surface. In May, the group raised $10,000 through Kickstarter--$1,000 above the initial goal--in just 25 days.
The group is already looking forward to its plans for next year, such as the first fall harvest, which will bring in popping corn, squash, basil, hot peppers and lettuce; eventually building a greenhouse on the space; and continuing to organize events to bring community members together in a neighborhood that is often segregated by race and income levels.
It’s been rewarding but time-consuming work for the core Co Op members, who spend about seven days a week at the garden while balancing other jobs and commitments. Member Liz Nerat, 26, commutes from the community garden to the North Side every day by taking the Metra downtown and biking the remaining 6 miles to her job as a labor organizer in Logan Square.
But Nerat said she doesn’t consider the time crunch a sacrifice.
“This kind of work--creating sustainable food solutions for areas that don’t have access to healthy food--is what I want to do with the rest of my life, so I have to find a balance for it,” Nerat said. “Maybe we don’t get out to the bars as much as some other 23-, 24-year olds, but this is really how we enjoy spending our time,” Delaney added.
And having the chance to do important work has been an incredibly opportunity for the entire Co Op team, which boasts a diverse set of members from backgrounds in activism, music, teaching and art--many of whom have been struggling to find jobs in a poor economy.
“[This project] is a pretty natural result of a poor economy, and a lot of our specialized education,” Booz said. “We’re all kind of miserable working service jobs--it’s not unusual that we’d want to make something for ourselves.”
Delaney credits a lot of the success of the Co Op Op so far to the fact that the team is wholly invested in more than just the project itself, but in the entire neighborhood--not just as onlookers, but as real, full-time residents. She is one of the five Co Op Op members, including Booz and Nerat, who live nearby in an apartment only a couple of blocks away.
She said living in the neighborhood has been instrumental in convincing Pullman community members to put their trust and support behind the project.
“Living here and being immersed in the space is the best way to seem like human beings who really care and are here for the long haul,” Delaney said. “There have been a lot of questions from community members like, ‘So, are you guys really going to stay?’ And we’re able to say, ‘Yeah. We live here. This is our investment in this community.’ We’re here to establish food security, not just build something and move on.”
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