Cooperation Operation fights food desert in South Side neighborhood

  • Erin Delaney (from left) Justin Booz and Liz Nerat outside the community garden in Pullman.
Erin Delaney (from left) Justin Booz and Liz Nerat outside the community…
July 22, 2013|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

When Justin Booz was growing up in Chicago’s South Side Pullman neighborhood, he wasn’t allowed to play in the abandoned, fenced-off lot at 114th and Langley, just a couple blocks way from his house.

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.

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