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Vanguard Weiss Memorial Rooftop Garden Hopes to Expand; Reaches out to Uptown Community

Photo by: Jason Smith/Vanguard Weiss Memorial Hospital

As the farmer’s market at Vanguard Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood enters its third year, organizers hope to expand its reach in the community and educate local students about the importance of nutrition.

Terry Tuohy, program administrator at Weiss has been working with Lakeshore Medical Hospital in hopes of using a plot of land owned by the hospital to plant more crops. According to Tuohy, the rooftop garden began with a goal: to make the members of the Uptown community healthy.

After a challenge by the CEO at Weiss to “think outside of the box” about health care, Tuohy proposed the addition of a farmer’s market, open to the public, on the ground floor of the hospital.

“It’s all about what people eat and we need to give them healthy options,” said Tuohy.

With the CEO’s approval, Tuohy ran with the idea and suggested the addition of a rooftop garden on the seldom trafficked sixth floor of the hospital’s parking garage to supplement the market.

“The hope is that we would open this up and allow more community members to come in and take a little plot of land,” said Tuohy, who would like to make the urban farm a neighborhood wide effort after the success of the first two seasons.

The rooftop garden and farmers market have also helped foster a sense of community among neighbors.

“At times [the hospital] needs more help to outreach to the community, so this has been a wonderful opportunity,” said Tuohy.

After news about the rooftop garden and farmers market traveled via word-of-mouth, summer camps and schools in nearby parks began bringing the kids to the hospital on field trips. It became a weekly event and the kids knew to bring extra money to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables, said Tuohy.

“The vendors loved it, they loved having the kids check out everything they brought,” said Tuohy. “It’s become something that the neighborhood expects and we’re very glad that we’re able to give it to them.”

Before the rooftop garden could become a neighborhood favorite, Tuohy needed to find employees with the knowledge to make the barren urban space bloom.

Tuohy contacted the alderman at the time, Helen Schiller, who directed her to Will Pool and Jed Schenkier.

“These guys came forward and said ‘we would love to try to make this work,” said Tuohy. The combination of their ideas with the hospital’s financial support brought the rooftop farm to life, said Tuohy.

Pool studied the politics of agriculture as an undergrad and became interested in social justice issues related to how food is moved throughout the world. As a “first generation city kid,” Pool has experienced the best of both worlds. He brought the farming skills he acquired through generations of knowledge on his family’s farm in Indiana to major metropolitan area.

The garden is a work in progress according to Pool. He and Schenkier, have had to work around complaints from the Chicago Fire Department concerning the location of the crop beds and rain water storage in relation to the garage exit.

Pool and Schenkier have figured out how to work with the space, within the bounds of Chicago’s fire code. Dirt beds line the front of parking spaces and the medians between them, as well as the corners of the lot where no one parks.

After a lot of brainstorming and adjusting, Pool is looking forward to a successful third summer for the rooftop garden.

The crop raised on the rooftop will be sold at the farmer’s market along side booths boasting products from farm across the Midwest. Farmers travel from Michigan, other parts of Illinois and Indiana to sell their crop at Weiss Memorial. The hospital welcomes the out-of-towners with free space to sell their product, something other markets would charge for.

“We think it’s much more important to get the farmers and the fresh fruits and vegetables and the wares that they have,” said Tuohy. “It allows [the farmers] to take a risk in an underserved community.”

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