Combating environmental racism in Evanston


Kupunoli Sumi

Edible Acres at ETHS serves as an example of what can be done within communities to fight back against environmental racism.

Gabi Karlan, Staff Writer

Every student has walked past Edible Acres at least once during their tenure at ETHS. Whether crossing the road from the bus stop at Dodge and Church or walking up to Lazier to watch a football game, they all have gazed upon the raised beds of herbs, vegetables, flowers and fruits to see the vibrant plants sprouting from their boxes of dark soil. 

Founded in 2009 in partnership with The Talking Farm, an urban farm located in Skokie, Edible Acres is a farm-to-school garden program managed using organic farming methods that are free from pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Edible Acres offers learning, leadership and job opportunities for ETHS students while simultaneously growing high-quality food for the ETHS cafeteria.

The purpose of Edible Acres is to feed students. Run by The Talking Farm and ETHS teachers, Edible Acres is an example of refocusing agriculture. Edible Acres grows sustainable and ethical produce in order to help students and the environment rather than to make money or grow a business. 

Ellen Fierer, ETHS AP Environmental Science and Urban Agriculture teacher, mentions that “the educating part of Edible Acres is about teaching students about their food system. It is about asking them: ‘Do you know where our food comes from?’ It is about educating them in order to empower them so that they feel that they can grow their own food.” 

Edible Acres is an example of a change in mindset; it represents a turn away from industry for the purpose of profit and a turn towards innovation for the purpose of collective improvement. Proponents believe that, to create an achievable green future, national and local mindsets need to be shifted to prioritize the environment and essential workers as vital factors in the continuation of societal development. Change can occur either through individual behavior or in overarching infrastructure. Thus, activists in this arena see the need to start asking questions. How does the environment impact our citizens? How are resources and impediments distributed? How are we perpetuating a system of inequality and discrimination?

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, a British economist, predicted that humans would run out of food. Malthus hypothesized that short-term gains in living standards would be undermined as the human population outgrows food production.

Thousands of acclaimed economists derided his work, arguing that food production would grow geometrically, because it relies on skill as much as land. Economists believed that technological advances like the development of seed breeding, chemical fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization and soil nutrient replenishment would easily compensate for the growth in population, therefore negating Malthus’s foreboding claim about the finality of food. During the 200 years since his publication, technology has indeed flourished and yields have risen dramatically. The Green Revolution occurred in the 1950s, enabling developing countries access to chemical fertilizers, high-yielding varieties of crops and newly-developed irrigation methods. New technologies opened previously wasted farmland to innovative and efficient methods of mass-producing products, thereby producing more products for less money and with less labor. 

So, who was right? Malthus or his dissenters? Centuries of development and consumption remain before a conclusion will be reached, meaning there is no clear answer to if the world will run out of food and why. However, there is a larger idea embedded in this simple scholarly debate. The two major factors in this problem are the consumers and the food. Yet nobody considered the environment or the workers. The drive for lower costs, lower prices and lower fees means there is a drive for outsourcing labor, decreasing wages and increasing the worker’s risk. Malthus’s prediction is an issue of industrial production and consumption, not of the actual system. He was not worried about the state of the environment or the rights of the workers, and, with that, he missed a crucial part of the problem. 

Generally defined, environmental injustice is the disproportionate exposure of communities of color to environmental risks and impediments. Our food industry is a prime example of environmental injustice. The health of workers is not considered as a factor in the economy. Consumers do not care that the workers who picked their strawberries are suffering from pesticide poisoning, nor do they care that workers face increased rates of respiratory disease, hearing loss, skin disorders, cancer and heat-related illness. American industry is not built around the people or the environment; it is built around the money. 

Chicago, as a highly industrialized American city, contains many elements of the common ¨agricultural industrialization¨ story.  Before Chicago´s founding in 1833, the land was filled with vibrant swamps and sweeping prairie lands. After founding Chicago, developers destroyed the swamps and capitalized on the nutrient-rich soil lurking underneath the prairies. 

Bruce Kraig, a culinary historian, summarizes: “Chicago’s existence and its wealth were founded on food. From its incorporation, the city was the collection and shipment center for the Midwest’s agricultural bounty. And Chicago grew to become the heart of America’s new food processing industries.”

Immigrants from Germany, Mexico, Sweden, China, Japan and all across the world‚including Jews fleeing the Holocaust and taking refuge on Maxwell Street—flooded to Chicago to farm their native crops and foster culinary innovations from their homelands. The influx of laborers aided in the development of the cultural identity of Chicago while adding economic capital and labor. According to Kraig, immigrants “brought their cuisines, making Chicago a great ethnic food town. With money from industry came refinement, the arts and the art of dining in famed restaurants.” El Milagro, a Chicago-based tortilla maker, is a prime example of Chicago’s food based growth. The operation, founded in 1950 by Raul Lopez, a Mexican immigrant, is only sold in the Chicagoland area but can be found on the shelves of nearly all supermarkets in the area. 

As the city expanded, so did the need for more and more land to meet the growing population. Conglomerates expanded, buying out smallholder farms and turning the farmland near the city into apartments and office buildings. Large corporations moved their farms farther outside of Chicago, increasing their acreage and resorting to the use of cheap herbicides and pesticides to produce crops on a mass scale. As Chicago expanded, so did its reliance on factory farms and the mass production of livestock and produce through morally questionable and environmentally degrading means. 

Chicago grew, the economy flourished and its industrialization was deemed a success. But what was the negative impact on the environment, communities of color, everyday workers and farmers worth the growth of Chicago? 

 Livestock suffered, greenhouse gas emissions increased extensively and intensive agriculture polluted water sources for communities across the nation—including the Mississippi River, canal, river inlets and Lake Michigan. Smallholder farmers were left in the dust, workers’ pay was decreased as production grew and fertilizers reaped the soil, thereby both harming natural capital and poisoning workers. Yet, the impacts on the environment and the workers were forgotten, deemed to be a minute consequence of the larger societal development. 

But environmental injustice is not a problem of the past. The City of Evanston’s infrastructure and government still allow for the prioritization of corporate interests over the needs of citizens, specifically citizens of color. 

The Evanston Waste Transfer Station, located on Church St. in the 5th Ward, represents a necessary duty that has been unjustly and excessively encumbering an already systemically over-burdened community. The station, intentionally placed in the 5th Ward because of low land rates, causes air pollution, noise pollution, rodent and odor issues and traffic problems, unduly burdening neighbors and causing innumerable health and financial problems for the community. 

Evanston’s 5th Ward has the highest concentration of Black Evanstonians, and the 5th Ward’s Alderman, Robin Rue Simmons, says that the station was intentionally placed in the ward because of its low land values, thereby further perpetuating redlining and past housing discrimination. Owned by Advanced Disposal, the Waste Transfer Station holds and stores trash from garbage trucks until a larger truck comes to pick the smaller deposits up and bring them to a landfill. The constant coming-and-going of trucks poses traffic and noise problems, but community members are more worried about potentially imperceptible yet dangerous air pollutants released from the station. 

After 10 years of community-based opposition, the City of Evanston conducted an air quality survey of the area, but the results were unclear, and determining causality was difficult.

 “Volatile Organic Compounds, nitrogen dioxide, and methyl mercaptan were found to have distributions which were statistically significant in the Study Area vs. control station analysis, but higher mean or median values were found in the ‘not downwind’ direction from the site, which could suggest regional influences unrelated to the site.”

In the official report, released March 11, 2020 by the City of Evanston on the results of the survey, the report states multiple times that the data is contradicting and a long-term study is recommended, claiming that “these parameters may benefit from evaluation of long-term trends in air quality in the future.”

Bea Echeverria, Citizens Greener Evanston’s Beyond Waste Subcommittee Leader, notes “the city has a history of trying to solve the issues and not making any progress. [The Transfer Station] generates smells, pests, vibrations and waste that is extremely detrimental to the community. They have to be somewhere, that’s true, but the location needs to be better thought out—away from other people.” 

The city placed the needs of a corporation above those of its citizens and, in doing so, greatly hindered the day-to-day lives and collective wellbeing of an entire Evanston community. 

The future of agriculture involves the development of new technologies and methodologies, but antecedent to revolutionizing technique is adapting our global mindset. Agriculture should not be centered around money or industrialization but, rather, the environment as it produces food, the workers as they nurture food and the people as they consume food. 

Edible Acres is a microcosm of sustainable agriculture, of refocusing on the actual plants and the people they can feed. Local and sustainable farming is not only beneficial for the environment but, also, vital for growing local economies and teaching citizens about where their food comes from and how it sustains them. 

The current food system of farming, manufacturing, producing and distributing follows a common path in American structural systems. American capitalism places the value of a dollar above that of the planet. Whatever is cheaper, quicker and easier is the priority. Food, as a vital commodity for survival, contains the key to economic success in a capitalist economy. There is neither a time limit nor fear of obsoleteness; food will always be a necessity. Food is a currency that begets success and often begets corruption as well. 

Consumers, as the force driving markets and profits, satisfy a system that promotes harmful production behaviors because of two main reasons: misinformation and frugality. Either American consumers are misinformed about the means of the food industry and how their consumption behaviors affect that, or they simply care about the bottom line: the cheapest meat for quality. 

Consumers drive the search for profits in the food industry, and, ultimately, they are the leading force in the corruption of agriculture. 

To create infrastructural change, people must first make individual change. Start buying from local farmers markets, support smallholder farmers, ask where food is coming from, and consider the impacts that decisions have on workers, on the communities, on the environment. 

To create a sustainable future, people need to recenter food as fuel, not food as profit. Across the country, across the world, a student should be able to walk past the garden or farm that produces their food that day. Food should not be an issue of money or power but rather of collective nourishment and empowerment. 

All people should know the origins of their food, the history of their food, the methods used to produce their food and, most importantly, who and what is being affected unjustly by the production of their food. 

The first step in creating a sustainable and fair future is by understanding the consequences of our actions, by understanding how current systems of industry and production impact individuals, impact communities of color and impact the environment.