Community Table is a Home Chef interview series dedicated to real people who celebrate food — from farmers, chefs, and food photographers to those cooking with love in their own kitchens.
Our third guest: Laurell Sims, manages the production of Growing Power Chicago’s eight urban farms, and markets the produce she grows to local restaurants and farmers’ markets.
Tell us your food philosophy.
The juice of mangoes running down my chin, heading to our family friend Tom’s farm and eating raw corn off the cob, and for better or worse, eating snails that my mom swore were mushrooms are the food memories I remember most vividly as a child. These memories were cultivated in large part by my mother, an army brat with roots in Kansas, but raised across the globe, from Orleans, France to Oahu, Hawaii. I was raised in Kansas, and in order to eat the foods of my mother’s childhood, we had to seek them out. Mangos, pineapple, and avocados are not grown locally, and it required a high degree of patience, persistence, and luck to find them. This chase made food exotic and mysterious for me. It also helped me see food, particularly meals, as inherently cultural. Food is a way to bring folks together: to share a meal, to try new tastes, to tell stories of childhood, family, and the adventures of the day. I like that food can both comfort you and challenge your senses — a good meal does both, especially when shared with those you love.
How have your personal and professional backgrounds shaped said philosophy?
My parents owned a restaurant when I was little, and they grew a large portion of the food on the menu, from alfalfa sprouts to summer squash. We always had food available in the garden, which as a kid, I took for granted. Going to the grocery store was an adventure to look for foods we couldn’t grow, more than it was a necessity, and I still like to think of trips to the grocery store this way. As a farmer at Growing Power, I grow the crops I like to eat and the vegetables that our customers request. What we don’t grow, I buy from farmers I know and love. Growing your own food changes the relationship you have with food from reliance to an act of empowerment. When you buy from people you know, you learn the care that goes into its cultivation and create friendships that form community. By sharing the bounty, we instigate connection and resilience.
Who are your idols? What about them inspires you?
I am fortunate to work with two of my idols, Will and Erika Allen. In fact, I moved across the country just so I could learn from them. They are both skilled growers, who go beyond growing and advocate for fair food. Food is political, and growing your own in an age of anonymous food buying is a revolutionary act. I am fortunate to work with folks who know that the current state of food growing and distribution is unjust, and who aren’t afraid to bring to light the issues surrounding food justice. Racism, poverty, and allocation of resources are only the jumping off point for the myriad issues that must be addressed in order to rectify inequality in the food system. I’m thankful to work for two people who have made equitable distribution of good food their mission in life.
What’s been the greatest challenge of your career so far? Tell us about that point in your life.
Growing Power’s farms are located in seven neighborhoods in Chicago and we employ over 300 teens after-school and during the summer. Some of those teens live in neighborhoods that experience high levels of violence. Food insecurity and homelessness are also hardships that teens we employ have encountered. It is hard for a teen to come to work and focus when their uncle has been murdered or they haven’t had a meal all day. It’s the harsh reality of life for some of our teens, and in a world often filled with chaos and unpredictability, we try to offer a safe place to land. The farm is a place where kids can come and just be kids, where they can learn and be challenged to grow. Nourishment can come in many forms, and we try very hard to help give our teens the tools to grow into healthy, inquisitive, responsible adults.
Name a dish that’s particularly meaningful to you. Share the story of that dish.
When I would walk into my grandparents’ home, before my grandmother would even ask how I was doing, she would say, “Are you hungry, honey?” My grandmother was an Irish matchmaker, a fantastic cook, and the love of my life. She was blessed with inspiration, intense curiosity, and a huge heart, which came across most directly in her cooking — it is how she would show love and gratitude daily. I’d heap spoonfuls of homemade chicken soup over buttery mashed potatoes, my grandmother and grandfather would each grab a beer, and we would gossip about the neighbors, talk baseball, admire my grandfather’s meticulous lawn, make wishes and tell stories around the kitchen table. After our meals, the scraps would go to the stray neighborhood dogs which my grandfather cared for every day without fail, because in the household I grew up in, everyone deserved to be fed, even the strays.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
Growing Power is building out a new farm in conjunction with the Chicago Park District on the Southside of Chicago. The South Chicago Farm housed at Clara Schaffer Park is a 14-acre food and fitness park that allows residents to exercise on fitness trails, as well as grow food in the community garden. The farm will incubate four first-time growers on the site — helping them launch new farm businesses to help increase the number of growers in the city, in turn helping increase food security in the neighborhood. Growing Power will also employ 15 teens at the farm this summer to help expand employment opportunities for young people. We’re excited to increase programming, install new growing beds, and have our first urban orchard in the city.
Anything else we should know?
Growing Power is a non-profit that inspires communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound; creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.
Learn more about Growing Power here, and follow them on social media @growingpower. Volunteers and donations are always appreciated.