By Joe Phillips, Sustainability & Urban Farm Director

Last winter and into the spring, as we welcomed increasing numbers of students back into the building after a long year of screens, I reflected on one of the twelve principles of permaculture: 

Creatively Use & Respond to Change

How do we as a school not only respond smartly to a volatile public health crisis but how do we also seize the opportunity to act with a sense of vision? My lockdown-addled brain raced through a series of spitballed ideas that ballooned in scope: We could help. We could use our farm to help Sandwich Shoppe evolve into a more public-facing student-run business that would serve neighbors suffering from food insecurity. We could transform the emptied pool into a humidor for growing mushrooms. We could reduce costs internally by building and repairing furniture in the woodshop portion of the new building addition. 

Use Small & Slow Solutions

And then I took a breath. The permaculture principles act as checks and balances against over-shooting the bandwidth of a given system. There were many ways to respond creatively in this moment of excitement as children flooded the classrooms again, but we could only move with one cautious step at a time. 

Observe & Interact

The solutions will reveal themselves if you just look carefully. Rather than cringe every time children bounded out the door to the rooftop garden, trampling plants under their feet, I could observe what needs were being fulfilled. Children had been cooped up for months, tethered to screens. They needed to let loose and be kids. I decided to allow our new rooftop garden to emerge in its second growing cycle as the wild meadow that it longed to be, bursting at the borders with food and flowers. Wheat gave way to mustard greens while white and red clover intermingled with blossoms of coreopsis, cosmos, wild carrot, larkspur, and a hundred other species. The arcing pathways invited children into this wilderness where they could crouch to inspect a slug and find themselves hidden beneath towering coneflower and switchgrass. Discovering peas or beans within the tangled biodiversity was like finding treasure, tapping into their own ancestral rite as hunters and gatherers. This way of gardening nurtured me as well, and we were all learning together. We pooled our observation and research skills to answer the original question of permaculture: what is it, and how does it work? 

Use Edges & Value the Marginal 

 In permaculture, an edge is not a dividing line but rather an opportunity for interaction. Just across Division street (ironically named) lies Holy Trinity High School, who I noticed had been giving away free hot lunches to the community nearly every day, rain or shine. I struck up a conversation with the school’s chef, Raphael, and began to wonder how Near North could be part of such an effort. As fate would have it, a small group of parents proposed that we build a Love Fridge - a free food station - just outside our school gates. The adolescent staff of Sandwich Shoppe became the natural stewards of this project, and within a couple of months we began distributing food to people in need, no questions asked. Our Love Fridge now stocks fresh-baked bread, eggs from our hens and produce from our garden, as well as any hot meals that Holy Trinity isn’t able to give away. In this case, the marginalized are not only valued but give agency and purpose to our work. The promise of our urban farm is not only to obtain a yield, but to create a more nurturing, integrated, and beautiful world for all.