This is Food Sovereignty: Land Access for Urban Agriculture in Chicago

Lauren DrumgoldEmerson, Field, Updates

Above: 29th Class Emerson Fellow Lauren Drumgold.

Food sovereignty – a new word added to my vocabulary during my time with the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC). I describe it as one’s agency in food; what foods are grown, where, how and who grows it, where it’s sold and purchased, and so on. I’ve long been passionate about food access, yet food sovereignty was a newer outlook on how one accesses food. Growing up in Harlem, New York City, I know all too well what a lack of healthy and affordable food access looks like. I often reference being able to choose which fast food restaurant I could go to; there were three stores in the same chain within walking distance from my house. Growing up I knew of only one reasonably priced supermarket in walking distance to my community, the one my family and hundreds of others frequented. I care about food choice and having options in where one can purchase healthy foods in their community, but I hardly ever thought about the earlier part of the food process and the possibility that residents in cities could produce food for their communities.

CFPAC is a nonprofit organization based on Chicago, Illinois. Their mission is to co-develop, facilitate, advocate, and support the implementation of policies that advance food justice and food sovereignty in the Chicago region especially for Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The initiative I supported while at CFPAC was their Productive Landscapes Project. This initiative, in collaboration with partner NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land-trust organization, aims to support the development of urban agriculture throughout the Chicago region by addressing the need for stable and long-term land access. The goals for this project include improving transparency on land use pathways for Chicago residents via land-owning institutions in the region, encouraging land-owning institutions to revise their land policies to make urban agriculture projects more feasible, mapping locations of vacant land in Cook County, and creating a tool for residents to learn how to secure land for urban agriculture projects.

The work I completed at CFPAC addresses the fourth goal of the Productive Landscapes Project. At CFPAC, I interviewed several land-owning institutions across Cook County to learn, from start to finish, how residents interested in urban agriculture projects, like community gardens or urban farming, can gain access to their land through ownership, land-use agreements and/or rentals of their land.

Initially, interviews were anticipated to fill in the gaps of knowledge that were unavailable from researching an institution’s website; however, I quickly learned that most of the institutions we were interested in interviewing did not have clear information on their websites for a majority of our research questions. This lack of publicly available information made we wonder, “If I’m having trouble trying to find this information, so too are urban farmers and residents.” I knew that the interviews would be critical to getting a clear picture of land use policies and procedures for institutions to relay to interested Chicago residents.

In addition to institutional interviews, we also interviewed five farmers in Chicago to learn about their experiences finding land to use for urban agriculture projects. It was important to understand what preferences urban farmers have and learn what information is helpful for them when considering land to use for urban agriculture.

Ultimately, the information we learned from land-owning institutions has been used to develop a website named the Chicago Land Access Pathways (CLAP). On the website, interested Chicagoans can filter through options such as location, application duration, whether land can be purchased, rented or used via a land-use partnership. Once the desired filters are set, land-owning institutions that match the filters can be viewed individually by selecting the institution where the user can read more about allowable and prohibited activities on the land, the step-by-step process for demonstrating interest in acquiring land and contact information to speak directly to a representative from the institution who oversees land use activities. Though in its early stages, I’ve heard from several people I’ve encountered during my field placement who shared how important it is to have a tool like this to make it easier for urban growers to locate land. Doing so will allow local leaders in urban agriculture to support their communities by providing jobs, allow for more community engagement, and of course provide locally-sourced foods for their communities. This is food sovereignty, the agency to produce, sell and/or share the food community members really want. All communities should have a right to food sovereignty, especially those with limited food access options. Historically, in Chicago these communities are predominately Black and their limited food access is a result of racially restrictive policies and intentional disinvestment in these communities. I am hopeful that the tool will be useful and proud to say that I have been able to work on the start of this tool, especially as fellow Emerson fellows have continued to the Productive Landscapes Project in the past.

Throughout my time so far as an Emerson Fellow, I have learned to connect with those who are experiencing the challenges we are trying to solve. Doing the work to improve a community cannot be done without knowing what challenges the community members say they face. I’ve also learned that an understanding of the community members’ perspectives improves one’s ability to think about what solutions can be made to make it easier for them to access information and resources; no assumptions can be made about their experiences. To me, being a leader means that one paves a pathway forward to make an aspect of life, like accessing food for example, easier for others to do. A leader must therefore detect that there is a problem, assess it, problem solve and provide suitable solutions. In this process, a leader knows that they cannot do the work on their own and needs others who have expertise. When looking for expertise, it is important to include the people within a community, as they too are experts, perhaps the most important experts, in the issue being addressed. Overall, I can say confidently that I have grown in my leadership capabilities.

Being a part of the Emerson cohort has allowed me to learn from my peers’ experiences, the challenges and successes we face as we navigate our field and policy placements. I’ve been able to ask for support as well as support others as we continue to grow from our individual and collective experiences. I know that my fellowship experience is equipping me with more knowledge, experience, and expertise, which I can see now, even before the end of the fellowship, is helping me grow in my confidence to be an effective leader and change maker.

I am excited to continue learning and growing while supporting the SNAP Unit at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) for my policy placement in D.C. as I learn about key food policies issues on a national level.


Special thanks to Kroger Co. Foundation for their sponsorship of this placement of Emerson National Hunger Fellows in Chicago.

About the Authors

Drumgold headshot

Lauren Drumgold

Emerson Fellow

Lauren is a native of Harlem, New York City, where she grew up observing economic, social and health inequities in her neighborhood compared to the more affluent communities across the city. She graduated from Bates College in 2019 where she received her B.S. in Biology with a minor in African American studies. Following undergrad, Lauren worked with City Year AmeriCorps in Harlem, New York, where she provided academic and social-emotional support to middle school students and facilitated after school programming. After graduating with her masters of public health from Washington University in St. Louis in May 2022, Lauren is excited to utilize her strengthened public health skills to support the efforts of organizations working to fight poverty and hunger in the U.S.

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