I founded Chicago Market 18 months ago because I'm a father.
It's not that feeding my children awoke me to the dysfunction of the industrial food system or the entrenched regulatory apparatus which allows our food to be inadequately and misleadingly labeled. Before my kids were born, I worked in restaurants, was part of a food buying club, donated my time in food co-ops, learned how to grow vegetables in my back yard, and woke up in the dark on Saturday mornings to volunteer in a farmers’ market. Nevertheless, none of that experience prepared me for hearing my then five-year-old try to sound out the barely-pronounceable ingredients in a simple granola bar.
When he was three, my son used to reach his hand up at the farmers’ market, tear off a shred of anything green, and innocently munch on it before moving on to another leafy green further down the table. Now nine, he loves cooking and making his own lunch, and he has adopted his grandfather’s tendency to plan his next meal during his current one. My younger son is picky about food: he doesn’t like to experiment, announces weekly changes to his palate, and complains bitterly when we serve something he finds unpalatable—like soup. Despite their differences, both of my boys are far more articulate about food and its origins than I was until my 20s. To them, knowing a farmer is a normal and natural connection to their food.
As is excitement for the beauty and pleasures of food. Chicago Market is about community and transparency and economic good will, but it is most of all about the food. I imagine my children explaining how most grocery stores carry romaine lettuce, and maybe red and green leaf, but not Winter Density, Boulder, LollaRossa, Green Butter Oak or Merlot lettuces. I imagine them visiting a farm which provides goat cheese to the co-op, and jumping with the baby goats, or watching through the wooden slats of a fence as Berkshire pigs root in their pens. I imagine them sneaking behind the bakery counter, learning how to roll out sourdough and lattice fruit pies.
Being a father is being a steward. Helping to open a co-op is taking responsibility for improving not only our food, but our food system. We will help foster farmers by building a new market and helping with infrastructure and distribution. We will improve our community by providing jobs, a source for healthy, honestly grown food, and creating a hub of neighborly activity and programming. The store will resound with the voices of children, discovering food anew, reveling in the sensory, returning to food’s roots.
My children still blurt out awkwardly at parties, “Dad, can I eat this?” and my 7-year-old announces to embarrassed parents at playdates that he “only eats organic meat.” Still, they seem proud that their father is building a new food co-op, and I can only hope that the food values I’ve tried to impart will remain with them as they become not only more responsible for their own food decisions, but more actively marketed to by junk food purveyors in their schools, neighborhoods and everywhere in media.
It pains me to admit that I will never be able to control everything my kids eat. Chicago Market will do our best, however, to provide information about what every product contains, even if we don’t provide pronunciation assistance for the inulin, soy lecithin and maltodextrin in organic granola bars (to say nothing of the contents of “natural flavors”). One can, of course, avoid these “non-foods” by skipping processed foods altogether—that is, if your kids hadn’t already tried to sneak the box into your cart. (“But Dad, they’re on saaaaale!”)
While I don’t have any illusions about whether it is harder to raise children or build a co-op, I do know that the work I’m doing is as much for the children as it is for my community. On this Father’s Day and on the introduction of Chicago Market to the world, I am doubling down on both.