For ten hours last Saturday, a group of 300 green-thumbed Chicagoans congregated at the Benton House in Bridgeport to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for all that is green. The event featured an array of activities, including a raw vegan cooking class, a home sprouting seminar, a bike maintenance tutorial, and the screening of ”Soul Food Junkies,” a documentary about the history of soul fool and the ways we can transfer the style back to the its healthy origins.
This cohort of environmental advocates calls itself the Young Aggies, short for Young Agriculturalists. A noticeably youthful and lively crowd mingled around the spread of raw celery sticks, mushrooms, pears, carrots, Polish sausage, barbecue tofu, and banana bread, and there certainly was no shortage of Birkenstocks, burlap bags, and floral prints floating around the floor of the Benton House gymnasium. But, as it turns out, a surprisingly large number of these self-proclaimed “young aggies” are seventy-somethings, not just twenty-somethings, some of who are ex-businessmen, fast food workers, and marketing executives, pursing their second careers as nutritionists, environmental advocates, and non-profit founders.
Alex Poltorak, one of ten Aggy event leaders, is a well-built man with a thick ponytail full of curly brown hair. He used to be a computer engineer, but now runs Urban Canopy, a group of rooftop farms that collaborate with Chicago Public Schools. A major concern for Poltorak is the shortage of healthy dining options for children living in South Side food deserts.
“Young Aggies are about stuff related to urban agriculture, food, and community building,” Poltorak said as he watched a group of people tie-dying cloth with juice from turnips, Brussels sprouts, and berries in the Benton House kitchen.
The Young Aggies are in their second year and, as of now, they have no official leader or home base. They prefer a “democratic” form of leadership, as Poltorak puts it, where different members organize different events taking place throughout various neighborhoods. The goal is to build up a diverse “Urban Ag” network throughout the Chicago area, and so far event sites have included Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Little Village, and now Bridgeport.
Perhaps what is most notable about the Young Aggies is the group’s great diversity, a trait that eliminates the elitist attitudes often associated with health-food movements.
“A lot of the times it tends to be that the crowds that gather are from the same ‘Urban Ag’ backgrounds, so it’s a little bit like preaching to the choir,” Poltorak said. “We really wanted to get people involved from other backgrounds, because everyone has to eat, but not everyone has to be involved in urban agriculture.”