When Matthew Jose looks at an abandoned lot on the near Eastside, he doesn't accept it as the byproduct of tough economic times. Instead, he sees a cornucopia that could beautify the area and help ease the need for fresh, locally-grown produce.
Jose has been working in the neighborhood since last year, growing vegetables on empty lots. As the urban garden program assistant at Purdue last year, Jose spearheaded the Urban Farm Project, which was funded through grant money. Two students from Arsenal Tech High School apprenticed on the "farm," and the produce was donated to a local food pantry.
This year, with no grant money, Jose has started his own company called Big City Farms and now tends to about an acre of gardens scattered on eight lots throughout the neighborhood. His hope is to eventually start a non-profit that will help local school children learn about growing their own food.
According to Jose, the skills students would learn in such a program would enable them to become small business owners, providing quality produce to areas that need it, while making a sustainable living at the same time.
"The thing I like about this project is it touches on a lot of cultural and socio-economic issues that need to be addressed," Jose says.
"Why do we have all these empty lots where we could grow food, yet people go hungry? Why aren't food stores being opened in certain areas? And why are there no sustainable jobs for high school students?" he asks.
For now, Jose is concentrating on building a sustainable business. He is selling bushels of vegetables through a Community Supported Agriculture group, whose members will pay $650 in exchange for a bushel of fresh produce every week from June until October.
"The biggest thing is showing this to people on a scale that they will take it seriously," he says. "I need to demonstrate that you can earn a living growing vegetables on vacant lots."
For more on Big City Farms: www.localharvest.org/farms/M25614