Dirty Hands Make Great Plates: The Urban Farm Initiative Program

By Kerry Jepsen | Megan Swann


Kerry Jepsen
Megan Swann
Chef John Vermiglio of A10 in Chicago.
Chef John Vermiglio of A10 in Chicago.

Kohlrabi, fuji apples, Tilson walnut oil, white balsamic, manchego, black walnuts, and mint. It’s fresh, simple, no bullshit—a salad you want all year long. As diners of Chicago’s A10 experience this salad, another group samples the same one. But they’re not at A10 in Hyde Park. They’re in prison. And what the diners of A10 may not realize as they sup on their salads is that the dish’s produce grew from the hard work of the prisoners of Cook County Jail through the Urban Farm Initiative Program (UFIP)
“One of the favorite dishes on the menu, [the salad] has been on for most of the restaurant’s existence,” says A10 Chef John Vermiglio. “It was inspired by a prison farm program for nonviolent offenders we’ve been working with for years. We buy up to 80 percent of our produce from the Cook County Jail, along with sourcing our eggs at an extremely reasonable and competitive price.” Vermiglio and A10’s owner Matthias Merges frequent the prison, meet with the inmates, bring samples of upcoming dishes, and occasionally harvest alongside the inmates. “I’ve never seen anyone care for the land as much as they do, and funding has gone up, so now they can produce almost year round!” says Vermiglio.

It’s not just funding that has increased for the UFIP. The once four-acre farm has since more than doubled in size, and is currently at 10 acres of fertile land. “In winter, we meet, talk about what we’re going to grow, how much I’m going to go through, and they start,” says Vermiglio.
Those enrolled in the UFIP have a lot to gain besides fresh air and sunshine: after 12 weeks, a member of the program can earn a certificate in gardening, and if you’re really stand out, Merges may have a job for you on the outside. “Everyone deserves a second chance. They deserve it as much as anyone else, and the discipline of the kitchen can really help to acclimate them to being free. Throughout the years I’ve hired twelve graduates of the program. I have six still with me,” says Merges, who has one post-prison employee he has worked with for 14 years. 

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