Fresh Taste Learning Journeys


Fresh Taste learning journeys are opportunities for members to learn together about food system initiatives out in the field without the evaluative overlay of site visits.  Ranging from four hours to two days, these experiences provide members with the opportunity to dive deep into issues they find compelling. Here are just a few highlights.


MightyVine, Rochelle, IL – May 2017

Fresh Taste urban ag study group members visited MightyVine, a greenhouse producing tomatoes for retailers in Chicago. With 15 acres under glass, it’s an amazing site to behold—and that summer tomato smell! Rochelle, 80 miles west of Chicago, offers MightyVine the large growing foot print tomatoes require, difficult to find in the city. There’s room on site to expand another 30 acres—indicating that this type of greenhouse model works well as part of a local food system. The technology and tomato varietals originate in the Netherlands, though the tomatoes grown by MightyVine are slightly sweeter to satisfy an American palate. MightyVine’s biggest cost is lighting in the winter, and their biggest growing challenge is the stretch of hot, humid nights in late summer—tomatoes prefer cooler nights. During this time of year, MightyVine shuts down and cleans ½ of the green house, reducing capacity to 50% at a time when other local growers can fill the tomato market demand. Fun Fact: MightyVine originally considered producing honey too, using honey bees as pollinators, but honey bees like to roam and would have deserted the greenhouse for the big, wide world. MightyVine instead pollinates using bumblebees that don’t produce honey

Harvesting 3

Picking ripe tomatoes

MV groupshot

Fresh Taste members


Discussing irrigation and nutrients

Examing Wasp eggs

Learning about wasp eggs



Old growth vines







Wasted Food Recovery, Chicago - August 2016

This learning journey explored one aspect of Fresh Taste’s current work around wasted food, linking organizations focused on food scraps, food recovery, and local policy. Fresh Taste members visited innovative programs in Chicago working with wasted food, primarily on the composting end of the “spectrum.” The tour began at Nature’s Little Recyclers, a vermicomposting business that uses worms to compost food scraps. They describe themselves as a soil building company. NLR thinks composting should be scaled up and designated as a utility in the city. At The Plant, members learned about their anaerobic digester, which is still under construction, and the building’s closed loop system where food waste from one business becomes a resource for another co-located business. The group also visited Urban Canopy’s one acre farm, which is the drop-off/processing site for their Compost Club’s food scraps, collected from 300+ paying members. The day ended at Gary Comer Youth Center with a tour of their urban garden and roof top garden.


Vermicomposting at Nature’s Little Recyclers


Worms! Nature’s original recyclers

NLR crop 2

Incubating worms

Plant Mural

The Plant


Urban Canopy

IMG_0444 v2

Gary Comer Youth Center Urban Farm







Bess Celio, Andrew Lutsey, Sarah Knobloch examing architectural drawings

Examining architectural drawings

Farm on Ogden, Chicago – June 2016

Bow Truss 1

Restored bow truss rafters at Farm on Ogden

Members of the Fresh Taste urban ag study group toured the Farm on Ogden developed by Windy City Harvest (WCH) in partnership with Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC), set to open in 2017. The new collaborative project will include a commercial kitchen/micro-processing center, a Healthy Corner Store, job training, and a multi-purpose community space. Additionally, Farm on Ogden will house a nutritionist from LCHC, and WCH is working with LCHC on a pilot program in which doctors will “prescribe” bi-weekly Veggie Rx/CSA boxes to patients with diet-related diseases, in conjunction with cooking classes.

Youth Farm staff and Angie Mason

Youth Farm Staff and Angie Mason, WCH







Food Co-ops, Chicago and Oak Park – February 2016

Fresh Taste members met with several representatives of both the Chicagoland Food Co-Op Coalition and Shared Capital Cooperative. The group toured Dill Pickle’s current and new (to be opened in 2017) spaces in Logan Square before driving to Oak Park to visit Sugar Beet Food Co-op, where the committee members had a chance to discuss lessons learned, barriers to development, and opportunities for funders to get involved. The members of the Chicagoland Food Co-Op Coalition work closely together to strengthen the co-op scene in Chicago, but they report many barriers to growth: community education, lender education, and access to financing. Organizations like Shared Capital Cooperative can help streamline and increase the financing process, but co-op representatives suggested that PRI’s are the best way for foundations to get involved.


Dave with squash

Dave Rand, co-founder, discussing local produce sourcing

Tomatoes 1

Locally grown tomatoes from Mighty Vine

Local Foods, 2015

In 2015, Fresh Taste assisted the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) in organizing five learning journeys, aka reality tours, during the 2015 SAFSF Forum, Digging Deeper, held here in Chicago. However, we still found time for a learning journey exclusively for Fresh Taste members! Local Foods hosted two behind the scenes tours for Fresh Taste members, including a tour of HandCut Foods (an independent school food service business that is housed in the same building and works closely with Local Foods) and a discussion with Mighty Vine (a year-round tomato greenhouse in Rochelle, IL, serving the Chicago market). Each tour included a robust lunch conversation at the Stock Café about challenges in the local foods business, including weather variances, a need for uniform packaging, solutions to combat food waste, and a lack of formal training for local butchers.




Innovation Districts: Fulton Market, Chicago – September 2014

Chicago’s Fulton Market District, just west of downtown Chicago, is the historic center of food manufacturing and distribution within the City. With businesses like Google moving in to the region and its proximity to downtown, Fulton Market was at risk of being overwhelmed by development inconsistent with its past. Kathy Dickhut, Deputy Commissioner of City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development (and Fresh Taste member), oriented the group to the City’s plans for establishing Fulton Market as the City’s first “innovation district” and then led a walking tour through the district, pointing out past, present and future examples of food enterprise development there. Fresh Taste members then enjoyed lunch in the Fulton Market District, at Little Goat Diner – the casual outpost of nationally-acclaimed chef (and local food advocate) Stephanie Izard. At lunch we were joined by Mark Psilos of Green City Market, who talked about Green City’s recent launch of its Fulton Market location and expanded opportunities for wholesaling local produce to many of the district’s restaurant and retail outlets. We wrapped up the day with a visit to the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago (ICNC), a manufacturing incubator just north of the Fulton Market District, where executive director Steve DeBretto shared ICNC’s interest in developing a food incubator that will draw on its tested approach to technical assistance in product development, marketing, and finance. The group toured the 416,000 square foot Fulton-Carroll Incubation Center and met with several food and beverage tenants including:  Pastoral Artisan, a European-inspired cheese, specialty food and wine shop; Element Bars, which manufactures made-to-order energy bars; Rhine Hall, a handcraft brandy distillery; and My Bread, a gluten-free bakery specializing in flat bread.

Green City Market Fulton

Green City Market Fulton, 2014.
Photo: Flickr/Kurman Communications

Staff and volunteers at Green City Market Fulton

Staff and volunteers at Green City Market Fulton, 2014
Photo: Flickr/Kurman Communications

Fresh Taste members tour the Fulton Market Innovation District

Fresh Taste members tour the Fulton Market Innovation District, 2014

Discussing the history and future of a building in the Fulton Market Innovation District

Discussing the history and future of a building in the Fulton Market Innovation District, 2014

A working lunch near the Fulton Market

Lunch at Little Goat during the Fulton Market Innovation District learning journey, 2014

Learning about gluten-free pita at Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago (ICNC)

Learning about gluten-free pita at My Bread, 2014









Food Safety: Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) – September 2013

Examining hazmat suits at Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH)

Members of the Fresh Taste Steering Committee at Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH), 2013

Members of the Fresh Taste Steering Committee at Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH), 2013

Given the importance of the Food Safety Modernization Act to local food work, Fresh Taste spent a day with the Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)’s Moffett campus in Bedford Park, Illinois. We began with a panel discussion connecting regional food systems and food safety across multiple perspectives: Wes King of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance gave a primer on the Food Safety Modernization Act, the country’s first legislative overhaul to food safety standards since 1938, focusing on the provisions that could have an adverse impact on small farms. Jim Slama of spoke on the tools his organization has created to help small farmers create food safety plans. Becky Stark of Midnight Sun Farm described her experiences in using those food safety plan tools and how she proactively educates customers to minimize risk. Dave Rand of Local Foods Grocer & Distributor talked about how food safety considerations are impacting the development of Local Foods’ distribution hub, butchery, and retail outlet. Following the panel, we met with IFSH and FDA senior staff, who described how their collaborative approach to food safety research and processing innovation creates unique learning opportunities for IIT students, while helping large food corporations minimize risk. We toured IFSH’s state-of-the-art facilities, seeing firsthand where pathogens are cultivated for food safety experiments, as well as IFSH’s chemistry laboratory and food technology center.


Urban Agriculture and City Planning: Detroit – May 2013

Learning about Detroit Works Project, Detroit, 2013

Fresh Taste members traveled to Detroit, Michigan, for a two-day learning journey to explore economic revitalization, urban agriculture, and local food systems in the Motor City.  We’d heard a lot about Detroit’s urban agriculture scene and wanted to know how it compared with Chicago as the Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan moved into implementation. Members met with architect Dan Pietra, who provided an overview of the Detroit Future City Framework, the City’s “roadmap” for decision-making around economic growth and stabilization, as well as Cheryl Simon of the Detroit Food Policy Council, who told us more about the Council’s unique structure and its efforts to legalize urban agriculture within city limits. Farmers markets in Chicago have explored the potential for a permanent year-round market, and to inform that conversation, we met with Dan Carmody of the Eastern Market Corporation and toured Detroit Eastern Market, one of the oldest and most vibrant permanent markets in the country. Dan gave a presentation on Eastern Market and the catalytic role it plays, creating the hub for an array of retail and wholesale businesses.

Eastern Market, Detroit 2013

The second day of the learning journey was focused on local initiatives. We began the day with Patrick Crouch at Earthworks Urban Farm, which grows produce for the faith-based Capuchin Soup Kitchen, as well as seedlings for Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program. Afterwards, the group split into two:  half met with Malik Yakini of D-Town Farms and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network; the other half met with Mike Score of Hantz Farms, a private corporation that had recently purchased 1,600 vacant city lots to establish tree orchards and nurseries. The different nature of each visit made for great lunchtime conversation at Colors Restaurant, a workforce training program run by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan.

We capped the visit with a trip to the Kresge Foundation headquarters in Troy, Michigan, where we met with Health Program staff David Fukuzawa and Stacey Barbas to learn more about their work in the region.



Land Conservation and Farmer Training: Prairie Crossing – July 2012


Examining reclaimed prairie land near Prairie Crossing Farm, 2012

Fresh Taste members Brad Leibov and Mike Sands of  Liberty Prairie Foundation hosted a learning journey to explore place-based working landscapes that produce healthy land, healthy soil, healthy water, healthy food and healthy communities, using the 5,000 acre Liberty Prairie Reserve in Lake County, Illinois, as a case in point. More than 3300 acres of the Reserve have some form of permanent protection. Members toured Casey Farm, a centennial farm recently protected by Conserve Lake County and leased to a graduate of the Liberty Prairie Foundation’s Farm Business Development Center (FBDC) at Prairie Crossing Farm, an incubator program for beginning farmers.

During the visit, members tested produce compaction, one determinate of soil health, in both a conventional row crop field and an organic field. The commodity field had extremely high compaction and showed no signs of worms or other living organisms vital to sustainable soil health. Fresh Taste members learned how the introduction of cover crops into the row crop system reduced compaction and reduced runoff into a neighboring stream.



Planning for Urban Agriculture in Chicago: Green Healthy Neighborhoods – May 2012

 Washburne Culinary Institute at Kennedy King College

Washburne Culinary Institute at Kennedy King College, Englewood, Chicago

The goal of this learning journey was to learn more about the City of Chicago’s Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan (GHNP), a proactive initiative to address significant structural change in Chicago’s human and natural landscape. Kathy Dickhut, Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Development (and Fresh Taste member) provided an overview of the challenges and opportunities in the South Side Chicago communities we visited:  Englewood, New City and Washington Park. At Growing Home in Englewood, Harry Rhodes, Executive Director, and Ray Thompson, facilitator of the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Network, discussed the potential for an urban agriculture district in Englewood and the role community engagement plays. (The City of Chicago has since allocated a significant base of land it owns in Englewood for urban agriculture.)  Food and farm enterprises are linked in the city, and Chef Zarakyah Al Ahmadi of Soul Vegan provided an entrepreneur’s perspective on the resources available to start-up businesses in the community. His company produces fresh packaged foods in the Englewood-based Washburne Culinary Institute, and he sells them in retail outlets from local grocery stores to Whole Foods Market.


Rural Development: East Central Illinois – September 2011

Goats grazing at Prairie Fruits Farm. Photo: Leslie Cooperband

Fresh Taste members traveled to East Central Illinois to learn about the region’s unique food and farming systems, starting with a focus on farming assets and challenges in the Amish community. We spoke with Andy Kaufman of Hedgerow Farm who supplies eggs and free-range poultry locally and to the Chicago market about different strategies for local and regional markets. We then followed the supply chain from farm to processor and traveled to nearby Das Schlacht Haus, an Amish slaughterhouse that is the primary slaughter facility for small-scale poultry farmers in Illinois. The lack of poultry processing is a major choke point for small-scale diversified farmers seeking to meet the demand for local poultry in the Chicago region.  We then traveled to Champaign, Illinois, for a visit to Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery — Illinois’ first farmstead cheese making facility. Owners Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband converted land dedicated to row crops to diversified perennial fruit trees and berries, goat pastures, hayfields and prairie. They emphasize a forage-based diet for their dairy herd of Nubian and La Mancha goats—seasonal and diverse pastures and locally grown alfalfa and grass hay. Wes and Leslie shared their vision for an in-depth farmer training program integrating processing and culinary training with agricultural production, highlighting the evolution of farmer training approaches in the region.


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