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Micro greens, big impact: urban farm generates wealth, food, and education in underserved part of Chicago

Sustainable agriculture is all the rage, but Garfield Produce in Chicago is adding a unique twist: generating wealth in an underserved community by creating jobs - especially for ex-felons. 

“About 70% of inmates released from Cook County Jail move here to East Garfield Park,” explained Co-Founder Mark Thomas. “It’s especially hard here for ex-felons - the housing supply is limited, and it’s a real food desert. It’s a vicious cycle where it’s really hard to get your life back on track after making a mistake, even when you’re really trying hard. 

“This area was devastated by riots in the 1960s and never recovered. My wife, Judy, and I had successful careers and wanted to do something to give back and try to help re-establish wealth in this community.” 

In 2013, they decided to focus on growing produce and ended up focusing on microgreens - and hiring ex-felons who wanted a second chance. 

“The workforce here is the best team I’ve ever been a part of - and I worked for a lot of years with some great people at the (Chicago) Tribune. Everyone is a hard worker; I’m continually impressed by this great team we’ve built,” Thomas enthused. 

As they worked to establish their business and make its model successful, they faced an important decision: which grow lights should we use? 

“We knew we wanted to use LEDs,” Thomas explained. “We tried different lights and came down to a choice between Current LEDs and a well-known competitor. After very careful tracking and comparison of output, there was no question that the Current LEDs  outproduced anything else.” 

“The Current LEDs make the plants fuller and more robust,” according to Shanquell London, Garfield Produce’s Head Grower. “Current grow lights are the best.” 

“Even with our smaller operation, we’re able to produce, on average, about 170 pounds of microgreens a week using the Current grow lights in our operation,” Thomas beamed. 

But Current’s lights weren’t the only value they added to Garfield Produce’s operation. 

“As we’ve needed help, advice, and assistance, [Current] has been there,” according to Thomas. “They sent out a team of engineers to help us set up our operation and give us growing advice. It’s been a great partnership.” 

Garfield Produce isn’t planning on resting on their laurels, though. 

“Our goal is to open 3-5 more of these around the city in the next 3-5 years,” Thomas explained. “Our business model has been proven to be successful, and we see it as franchisable. That way, our employees could become entrepreneurs on their own.”

Garfield Produce’s goal of helping communities doesn’t stop at just creating jobs, either. “We donate a lot to food pantries around the community, as well. We also work on educating the community about the importance of a good diet and eating vegetables. We really want to send a clear message to people that you can be successful in this community,” Thomas said. 

As Garfield Produce expands and creates an even greater impact on underserved communities, Current will continue to be an integral part of their mission. 

“We want to open these around the United States and even internationally,” Thomas explained. “It’s a successful business, and it’s been a very successful partnership with Current. Current grow lights are great, and we’d recommend them to anyone trying to do hydroponic growing.”

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