Urban farming helps formerly incarcerated Chicago man in giving back to community

Chicago's Very Own

CHICAGO — It began as a way to reduce his prison sentence by enrolling in an agricultural program.

Now with a newfound passion for urban farming, David Edwards is working to make healthy, fresh produce accessible for his community. He is one of Chicago’s Very Own.

The last thing Edwards thought he would be doing is growing vegetables in his Garfield Park neighborhood.

“Cucumbers, asparagus, a couple of heirloom tomatoes, and we have cherry tomatoes as well as corn,” Edwards said.

This is Harvest Commons Urban Farm. It’s connected to the ‘Smooth and Social Roots Café’ that he recently opened. It’s a unique dining experience where customers choose the produce that will garnish their menu selection right from the garden.

If they’re ordering eggs, they get to choose which one directly from the farm’s chicken coop.

“The customers are very interactive with everything we do here,” Edwards said.

Fresh, organic produce is scarce or non-existent in certain areas of Chicago. Edwards believes everyone deserves access to fresh food, as well as the resources to learn how to eat healthy.

“I’ve been over to a couple of churches in the area as well as just like creating my own farmer’s market within those different areas, actually gives them better access to fresh produce,” Edwards said.

During the pandemic, Edwards has partnered with local businesses to donate produce for food drives. But his biggest donation has been through a program with Heartland Alliance that’s located in the same building as Edwards’ café.

“He’s committed to growing 4,000 lbs. of produce for the residents in the building,” Heartland Alliance member Josephine Mathias-Porter said.

Mathias-Porter said dozens of residents in this shared building are low-income or re-entering society.

“In that way, the food that he’s growing there at Harvest Commons is going directly in the refrigerators of people in the building, many of whom have been incarcerated,” Mathias-Porter said.

Edwards understands all too well the challenges of his neighboring residents. In 2004, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years on a 2nd-degree murder charge.

While in prison, he took up several jobs in order to reduce his sentence.

“One of them was to work on the farm out there, so that was my first experience with growing zucchini, and that was my first experience eating zucchini,” Edwards said.

When he was released, Edwards joined a program with Windy City Harvest – Chicago Botanic Gardens to hone his farming skills.

“I just thought I’ll go to school a little further and learn some things and get this together and that’s what I did and here I am now,” Edwards said.

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For him, gardening became a way for him to connect with nature, giving him a zen-like feeling.

“The tranquility, it’s like so calm just being in the garden, watching your plants grow, being able to nurture them, and then being able to teach other people to do so, and being able to give the people things that they need to have,” Edwards said.

Edwards said his goal is to eventually open a fresh grocery store in areas where fresh produce is scarce.

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