Pops of color from playgrounds and public murals break up the gray landscape along the streets leading to Su Casa Catholic Worker, a community house providing shelter to displaced Hispanic families, most survivors of domestic violence, on the South Side.
What’s harder to find in this neighborhood is color from fresh produce. “There are three corner stores within walking distance, but there’s no fresh food,” says Su Casa co-executive director Colette Larson. “Produce is expensive and people around here can’t afford to buy it. So if they offered it, it would just sit there and go bad. That doesn’t help people in this part of the community to eat healthy.” But through a partnership with an agriculturally minded nonprofit, the workers at Su Casa are literally growing change.
“These people, they’re used to getting everyone’s leftovers,” says Breanne Heath, field training specialist at Growing Home, a nonprofit that provides agriculturally based job training to individuals with barriers to employment, such as a felony background.
Tears fill her eyes when discussing the certified organic produce Growing Home donates each year to Su Casa from a 2,000-square-foot plot. “They’re getting premium produce here,” she says. “The stuff we’re growing for them would go for a huge amount of money at the farmers’ market. And they’re getting it, which is amazing.”
About ten years ago, the Catholic Diocese donated much of the verdant Su Casa grounds to Growing Home, which used the site for its first certified organic urban farm. The produce cultivated and harvested by Growing Home employees and those in its job-training program was packed and shipped to its booth at Green City Market. Guests at Su Casa received whatever was leftover. But as the Green City Market booth grew in popularity, very little produce remained.
That changed in 2009. “Everything in the bed that I manage goes to the house, the soup kitchen and the food pantry that are all on-site,” Heath says. Families living in Su Casa take turns preparing nightly dinners for everyone in the house using donations from the Greater Chicago Food depository, Trader Joe’s and produce from the garden.
“It’s rare that we don’t have primarily vegetarian meals,” Larson says. “We [now] get so much produce that we’re talking about doing some canning, which is really exciting.” The rest is donated to Pete’s Place, Su Casa’s community soup kitchen next door, where it’s handed out to those in need. Larson explains that through Pete’s Place, people in the neighborhood are eating items such as lettuce for the first time.
The young residents of Su Casa are getting in on the healthy fun as well. Among the pear and apple trees, there are raspberry patches and grapevines bearing fruit that kids pick. Heath also worked with the children here to plant a sunflower patch and plans to teach them composting techniques.
It’s all part of creating a more serene environment, Heath says. “We really want this to be a nice place for the families. A lot of them are coming from turmoil. It’s nice to be able to just sit and have some quiet.”