Christopher Epps, the full-time gardener responsible for cultivating the Proviso Giving Garden in Maywood. | Michael Romain/VFP
Saturday, July 8, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
The closing of Aldi in Maywood last year, and Ultra Food in Forest Park and Meijer in Melrose Park this year, have created something of a desert in Proviso Township when it comes to places residents can go to get fresh produce.
But on Madison St. in Maywood, right across the street from Proviso East High School and adjacent ReUse Depot, there’s an oasis.
“I grew too much,” said Christopher Epps, 36, during an interview on Saturday. Epps is the full-time gardener who is slowly, deliberately making the Proviso Partners Giving Garden the start of what he hopes will be a paradigm shift in how Proviso Township residents relate to the food they eat.
He pointed his soiled hand to raised beds of carrots, egg plants, bell peppers, jalapeños, yellow and blue watermelons, collard greens, brussels sprouts, swiss chard, tomato, rhubarb, basil, cilantro, dill — all of it grown organically on a sliver of land that’s roughly the size of someone’s backyard.
“I’m aiming to grow 4,000 pounds of [food],” Epps said. “Right now, I’m at, like, 487. At this rate, I might get more than 4,000 pounds.”
The work of Epps and the Giving Garden are the result of around $2.5 million in grants that Proviso Partners for Health (PP4H) will receive over five years from Trinity Health.
Formed in 2014, PP4H is a coalition of stakeholders that united to fight against childhood obesity in the western suburbs.
The community stakeholders include “Loyola University Health System, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, as well as Proviso-Leyden Council for Community Action, Proviso East High School, Quinn Community Center, Green Business Network and more than a dozen other community and social service organizations, government agencies and businesses,” according to,” according to a 2016 Loyola statement announcing the series of Trinity grants.
Epps said he partnered with PP4H and Trinity in order “to teach all of the kids in the area how to grow food.” The grant funding allows Epps to work the garden full-time, 40 hours a week. Epps volunteers another 45 hours on top of the hours for which he’s paid.
“This was a trial period,” Epps said of the garden, adding that if all goes according to his ambitions, the Madison Street garden will be the first of 13. He plans to set down 12 more gardens in Bellwood, Broadview and Maywood over the next three years.
Each Saturday this summer, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., volunteers will be selling produce grown in the Giving Garden on Madison at a farm stand erected in front of ReUse Depot. Prices for vegetable bundles, such as carrots and chard, range from $1 to $3.
What isn’t sold is donated to charities and social organizations like the Quinn Community Center in Maywood, where all of the produce from the garden is stored after its picked.
By September, Epps said, the garden’s produce will be sold on shelves in four corner stores — two in Maywood, one in Forest Park and one in Oak Park.
“The idea is to make Proviso Township a sustainable food hub,” said Epps. “Some people have to leave outside of the township just to get food and it shouldn’t be that way. You can have a neighborhood that way but you can never have a community that way.”
Epps said that the idea of eating organic produce is a learning process for many residents, one that he helps expedite by often giving away food to residents who live nearby and to the elderly.
Keion Mackey, a Berkeley resident who volunteers with the Proviso Giving Garden in Maywood. | Michael Romain/VFP
“This is food is healing people,” he said. “It’s also a tool for the elderly in the neighborhood to come out. Each morning I speak with them and we exchange ideas.”
The garden is also a place to cultivate young minds like that of Keion Mackey, a teenager who lives in Berkeley but who volunteers his time on the weekends at the garden.
“I’ve been gardening since I was little, when I did it with my grandmother,” he said. “It feels like I’ve been doing this my whole life. My family owns land in Arkansas and Mississippi that we lease to the government to grow soil.”
Alyssa Post, a rising senior at Illinois State University and aspiring dietician who is undergoing an internship at Loyola, said her time at the garden is essential to her career path.
“When I graduate this upcoming spring, I have to do dietetic rotations and Loyola has a master’s program that I eventually want to enroll in,” she said.
Until then, she takes in the hard-earned mastery of Epps, who was on an entirely different career trajectory before taking up gardening.
“Five years ago, I was a forklift operator at Waste Management,” he said. “I was stuck, though. My pay had peaked at around $19. I said, ‘I need to do something else.’ I saw an ad for an internship with the Chicago Botanical Garden. I applied, got it and graduated at the top of my class. They introduced me to PP4H.”
Epps said that, in addition to scaling up, his plans for the Madison St. garden point are sky high — quite literally.
“It’s going to get better,” he said. “I’m thinking about expanding to the roof. You know McCormick Place has the largest rooftop garden in the Midwest. I helped put it up there.” VFP