Women Working To Do Good

WWTDG: Jill Zenoff

Women Working to Do Good is a new series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.

Jill Zenoff is a force to be reckoned with. Her claim to fame, The Gan Project, has taken a quarter acre of unused, grassy Chicago back lot and turned it into an urban homestead. After only a year, a few rows of vegetables and a chicken coop are already changing the neighborhood in significant ways that even Jill would never have imagined. Her vision became reality unusually quickly, and she has not only luck, but herself to thank for that.

For a long time Jill had been interested in living in an intentional community – a place where people live together with shared ideals and have to work together and interact a lot more than, say, me when I lived in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. Culinary school followed college, and after much disillusionment with the industry, she started her own catering company.

The stress nevertheless made her physically ill and it took her over a year to recover, but her passion for food justice was still going strong. A Jewish farming fellowship at the Adamah farm in Connecticut changed everything. “It was such a stark contrast to everything I had experienced as an adult… The baseline was acceptance. The community was so connected to the land and working a sustainable system, and my health started coming back.”

Back in Chicago, there was nothing even remotely comparable. A friend told Jill to write down what she wanted the Jewish community in Chicago to look like, and the steps she needed to take to get there. And so she did. This outline turned into what is now known as the Gan Project, a Chicago urban homestead that feeds food pantries, offers educational programs for groups of all ages, and has connected the community around it instantly.

Along with Anne Laforti (the friend who prompted Jill to write the above outline) and Suzanne Nathan, a University of Chicago graduate whose social work degree was fresh out of the academic oven, they wrote grant applications and came up with the basic budget to start an urban homestead. The Chicago JCC (Jewish community center) gave them land to work. This sounds simple enough, and they did have space behind the baseball field that was just grassland, but it was really Jill who made it happen.

The woman commands respect naturally. She is self assured, focused, and knows her stuff. She humbly told me that the JCC was generous and open in giving her the land to work, but really, it was the strength of her vision and the strength of her belief in it that made it happen. More importantly, she wanted more than just a few veggies in the ground, building around the question, “how do you feed a community in the most dignified manner?”

Let’s just stop for a moment and appreciate that idea. We all know there are too many people who go hungry each day, and most of us have volunteered at some kind of food drive or soup kitchen (often because we had high school requirements to fill). This girl took it further. It is not enough to just feed people who need it, but to preserve their dignity in the process. Is your mind blown? Because mine kind of is. It’s such a simple, small step of compassion, but so few of us actually take it.

“We decided we weren’t going to use our produce as a revenue source” says Zenoff. “We have grants for that, we have donors for that, we have educational programming for that… Our food is about providing access to healthy, safe, nutritious food regardless of a person’s ability to pay, so we didn’t put up a fence and the whole quarter acre that we have is open to gleaning [for anyone] throughout the entire season.” Gleaning means harvesting, but specifically by and for those who can’t afford food otherwise. The term has biblical roots, which is where the Gan Project has its most solid foundation. However, it is not a religious organization, although it does identify as Jewish, but chooses to view biblical text from a practical perspective.

“In a more contemporary setting we can actually live and practice like our ancestors did. We can grow food. We can apply the principles of  baal tashit, of not wasting, of ethical treatment of animals, of tikkun olam, of repairing the world in a very day-to-day, pick-up-a-shovel, do-the-work, DIY form of activism.” Jill takes social justice to a whole new, really fun and edible level. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “social justice” I usually think of angry youth with fists in the air yelling to whomever will listen. As Jill reminded me, even the simplest thing can be a form of positive activism, however. “Eating in season is an act of social justice.” Indeed.

As Jill put it, “the grocery store is a chore, the farmer’s market is an experience.” Going to the farmer’s market means supporting local farms that are usually organic (whether or not they are certified – organic certification is very expensive, but most farmers sell non-pesticide, non-GMO produce). Local produce also means not creating a demand for food that is transported over thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks, which is enough of an environmental mess without the produce itself consisting of overgrown genetic mutants. Industrial farms pump nitrogen into the soil to make produce larger, though it doesn’t increase nutritional content, just the water weight. That giant apple in your hand is the Regina George of fruit, living a Caltene bar lie. And we all know how that ended.

I could go on (Jill and I sure did) about the problems created with genetically modified seeds, unethical treatment of workers on large factory farms, and big companies making our decisions for us in supermarkets, but mostly I’m just impressed with the impact this little plot of farmland in the middle of Chicago has made. The community sustains it by working the soil. People of all ages, ethnicities, and genders come for the programming, which has spanned preschool groups, seniors and the LGBT community, to name a few.

People come to glean not just for themselves, but their community as well. The potatoes are taken care of by a gentleman from the retirement home next door, a Russian immigrant who popularized the term “chapka,” which is Russian for hoe (a gardening tool that was the source of much inappropriate revelry among middle and high school kids until chapka came along). When Jill shows up, a gentleman from a neighboring building yells down and updates her on what the chickens have been up to. A police officer changed his patrol route so that each night, at 2am, he pulls up on the service road behind the chicken coop to make sure the hens are fine. Food preservation and cheese making workshops help make the most of what’s grown, and in the winter the Eat, Talk, Grow series continues the conversation while the soil sleeps.

Jill is inspiring because what she does is so simple, yet so few people follow her example. While she works hard, she is driven by a prolific vision of a better world and an uncanny compassion for others. She believes in the power of good food and working to create it, because it saved her own health. Yet she offers the experience, and benefits thereof, to anyone who takes it because she acknowledges that each experience is unique. An intelligent, impassioned and empowered woman, Jill Zenoff has turned a quarter acre of inedible grass into a vast resource for an entire community. She is not only a woman working to do good, but succeeding at it admirably.


photo by Kathryn Hastings Photography