Team sweetgreen with Team Growing Power, in front of the mobile farmers market we helped them build with our opening day proceeds from sweetgreen River North.

How You Helped Us Turn an Old Bus Into a Farmers Market on Wheels

We’re making a huge impact with Growing Power in the food deserts of Chicago, and it’s all thanks to you.

We’re on a mission to build healthier communities and have a positive impact on the food system. That work can’t be done alone, and luckily, there are a lot of amazing organizations doing great work to build a better food system, locally and globally.

In every city where there’s a sweetgreen, we seek out a partner who inspires us. With these partners, we brainstorm ways to solve a real problem in a way that truly makes a difference, and we donate ongoing resources to support this partner, including our opening day proceeds.

When we decided to open in Chicago, we were excited to partner with our friend, the inspiring urban farmer Will Allen and his nonprofit, Growing Power is on a mission to scale urban agriculture and show that food can be a way out of poverty — there are hundreds of jobs in agriculture, and healthy eating is key to a healthy life.

Some background: Will and our co-founder Nic were part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s delegation to Expo 2015 in Milan — an international food fair where countries came together to brainstorm how to feed a growing global population. Nic and Will bonded as “the food guys,” and made a deal that we’d find a way to work together when we eventually opened in Chicago.

Will Allen in one of his Milwaukee hoophouses, where he’s been growing red, green and purple peppers.

One year later, it was time. Once we signed a lease, we reached out to Growing Power, which has 20 farm sites in the Milwaukee area and another 6 in Chicago that are run by Will’s daughter Erika Allen. Growing Power grows a broad range of food, including okra, squash, lettuces and spreen, and also raises chickens and goats with names like Taco, Debbie and Billie Ray. We committed to sourcing Growing Power’s red cabbage and kale, but we knew we could do more to support the Good Food Revolution.

Erika Allen, at Growing Power’s 7-acre farm on Chicago’s South Side.

Turns out, Chicago’s south and west sides have a dearth of grocery stores and access to real food. Some of the communities in those areas have 20% unemployment, and 42% of people live in poverty. To make food more accessible and to amplify the mission of Growing Power, the nonprofit created the Fresh Moves Mobile Market, a farmers market on wheels that makes stops throughout those underserved neighborhoods. On some days, half the transactions on the bus are through SNAP, and Fresh Moves is one of few places in these areas where SNAP can be redeemed for healthy, real food. And while most farmers markets run in warm weather, this bus makes the rounds throughout the year, providing food to those who need it, when they need it.

The city had just donated two decommissioned city buses to Growing Power (thanks, Mayor Rahm Emanuel!), which meant they could scale their farmers market and the programming that runs with it, like chef demos. But transforming a city bus into a mobile market was no small task, and it’s capital-intensive, so the buses were sitting around, waiting to be transformed.

“This bus has been kind of a mission impossible,” says Erika Allen, who runs Growing Power’s Chicago farms. “We’ve had a lot of setbacks, we have very limited resources as an organization, and we’re not exactly in the business of tricking out vehicles.”

We knew this was an opportunity to double-down on our commitment to Growing Power, to build healthier communities and to make an impact in our new city. We decided that opening day proceeds at sweetgreen River North would fund the project, and we’d do whatever we needed to do to get it on the streets.

The sweetgreen River North team gets their hands dirty at Growing Power.

First, the bus needed to be cleaned out. We brought our River North team to Growing Power’s 7-acre farm on the South Side for orientation, where they learned about the shared mission of sweetgreen and Growing Power: providing real food and creating a sustainble food system.

The sweetgreen River North team, with the bus they helped build.

After a few months of buildout, electrical work and permitting, the bus is finally on the streets of Chicago, making 30–40 stops a week in the neighborhoods that need it most, like Englewood, South Shore, Bronzeville and Austin. In Englewood, for instance, 40% of people struggle with food insecurity and 41% of people use SNAP benefits, so the bus is filling a great need here, and we’re thrilled we can help Growing Power make an impact.

“We love the whole energy of this partnership, it’s really where we want to see philanthropy move,” Erika says. “And frankly, without this support right now, we wouldn’t be able to launch the bus.”

Will Allen’s life mission is to bring good food to everybody, and there are big moves to be made in Chicago. We’re excited to support Growing Power, and we know that this is just the beginning of our relationship as we plant deeper roots here in the Midwest. If you came to Opening Day, thank you — your meal made a difference. And if you’re in Chicago or Milwaukee and want to get involved with Growing Power, you can donate or volunteer — they would definitely appreciate your support.

— team sweetgreen

Photos by Mike Szpot and Samantha Parquette.