Uncommon Ground’s Certified Organic Garden (the first in the U.S.)!

It was a gorgeous day when we shot our latest episode of Conscious Living TV from the rooftop of the Uncommon Ground restaurant in Edgewater! We came to Uncommon Ground this past weekend, along with other members of the press (and Mayor Daley!), to cover the ribbon cutting ceremony of the nation’s first certified organic rooftop garden at Uncommon Ground.

Upon our arrival at Uncommon Ground restaurant (1401 W. Devon Ave), we climbed up the stairs to the roof, which houses a multitude of luscious, green plants that allow the restaurant to grow its own organic vegetables. Besides being gorgeous and green, the rooftop offers a beautiful view of the local Edgewater community and Loyola University.

Before the ceremony began, Bianca interviewed Uncommon Ground owners Mike and Helen Cameron. To catch this interview, look out for our upcoming episode on Conscious Living TV!

After our interview with Mike and Helen, Mayor Daley arrived! Chicago’s Commissioner on the Environment, Suzanne Malec-McKenna was also among the guests at the ceremony. After a brief period of schmoozing, the ceremony began. Natalie Pfister, Uncommon Ground’s Farm Director, was the first to speak. Natalie discussed the advantages of urban agriculture in making food more accessible, claiming, “There is nothing more local than climbing your own stairs and harvesting tomatoes.” Tomatoes, we soon found out, are the main crops grown in the garden along with other vegetables such as peas and squash.

The next to speak was Alderman Patrick O’Connor, who admitted that a feat such as the organic rooftop garden has been discussed as more of a novelty than a way of the future. For O’Connor, urban organic gardens represent a return to the basics, allowing us to grow, pick, and eat vegetables in a short time. O’Connor also praised Mayor Daley for his well-known efforts toward sustaining and beautifying the environment. “Not only have we beautified the city,” O’Connor said, “but we have also taken a little of the economy and are growing on our own.”

After O’Connor’s introduction, Mayor Daley spoke about his long-held belief that “nature can coexist in urban communities.” With the organic rooftop garden at Uncommon Ground as a precedent, Daley cited the plethora of flat roofs in Chicago as an “opportunity to bring nature back into our city.” By growing our own produce organically, we can cut down the costs of shipping as well as reduce pollution and congestion throughout the city. Daley sees Uncommon Ground as the future of restaurants in Chicago.

Next, Uncommon Ground owner Helen Cameron recalled a rush of excitement when she first climbed on the roof and told her partner and husband Michael, “We can grow food up here!” From that moment, Helen and Michael knew that they would build a farm on their roof. Before they could create the garden, the Camerons had to reinforce the building’s foundation with a lot more cement and traded wood beams for steel in order to support the weight of the farm. Helen cited an overall theme of “support on many levels” as tantamount to their success. In addition to the support of Mayor Daley, Helen thanked the city of Chicago and the surrounding Edgewater community for their help and support. She recalled how many of the restaurant’s neighbors devoted much time and work to installing the garden. 

For Helen, the memories of helping with her family vegetable garden as a child served as an inspiration for her to become a chef and restaurant owner and gave her the knowledge of how to operate a garden. With this knowledge in place, Helen dedicated space to as much organic food as possible for both use in the restaurant and as an educational platform for urban agriculture. Once the farm was installed, she found out about becoming certified organic. As a result of her eventual success in becoming certified, Uncommon Ground now offers the community a number of green jobs, including those held by Farm Director Natalie Pfister and her seven interns.

After Helen spoke, we heard from Steven Walker, the Certification and Compliance Manager of the Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), who reviewed Uncommon Ground’s application for organic certification. Walker emphasized the many standards that must be upheld in order for a farm to be organic. With the national organic program still being relatively new, Walker also stated that “regulatory boundaries continue to be defined.” Walker said, “The organic community has roots in thinking outside of the box, innovation and creativity.” Eco-preneurs like the Camerons are using just this kind of innovative thinking and hard work to help people understand the importance of eating organically grown, locally produced food.

Walker then spoke about the numerous advantages of organic food production in building safe and healthy communities. Organic food production transcends the “physical, mental, and emotional health” benefits of those who consume it. More than one billion pounds of pesticides are released in the United States each year due to non-organic practices, and conventionally produced agriculture is more likely to contain pesticide residues than organically produced food. With this in mind, Walker believes that Uncommon Ground is succeeding in its original promise and said he is proud to certify it organic!

Uncommon Ground owner Michael Cameron spoke shortly before Mayor Daley took questions from attendees. Mayor Daley said that Chicago is in the process of building a solar field on the South Side. He also emphasized that more help from the federal government and the Department of Energy will be necessary to furthering the city's green initiatives.

At this point, Mayor Daley cut the apple green ribbon and the ceremony was complete!

At the conclusion of the ribbon cutting ceremony, Bianca got an exclusive interview with Mayor Daley! To catch this interview, check out the home page of Conscious Living TV.

Afterwards, guests were invited to move downstairs to the restaurant to mingle with the Camerons while eating a delicious organic champagne brunch, including a menu of organic bellinis, fresh baked melt-in-your mouth banana bread, fresh seasonable seedling farms raspberries, blueberries and cherries, and a summer egg scramble of organic rooftop peas, summer squash, market onions, tomatoes, capriole goat cheese and fresh basil. We were so excited to have been present at this huge moment for Uncommon Ground and for organic urban farming, and we can’t wait to see how other Chicago businesses follow suit. To dine at Uncommon Ground, go to 1401 W. Devon Ave (just off the Loyola stop on the Red Line), or to visit their Farmer’s Market, visit the restaurant on Fridays from 4pm-8pm until October 30.

Special thanks to our crew for doing a bang-up job at the event, including Shu Ling Yong and Karl Geweniger, and Morgan Greenwald for reporting and live tweeting @Conscious TV.

For more tips on organic cuisine and healthy living, watch Conscious Living TV.

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