The Center for Urban Transformation (CUT) was founded and incorporated in 1999 as a nonprofit corporation in Illinois. The CUT was at its inception and in its first phase a think tank and discussion group made up of its Board of Directors. After 10 years of these activities the CUT is decidedly embarking upon Phase Two: the task of applying its research and discussions into becoming a “do” tank.
The organization was formulated with the understanding that it wanted to design and implement activities rooted in principles and philosophical positions shared by all of the founding members, such as sustainable community and economic development in urban communities. Thus the CUT is informed in its program and policy considerations by the principles of environmental justice, ecological (green) design and architecture, sustainable agriculture (rural and urban), clean production, and human rights; as well as the precautionary principle, fair trade practices and policies, and the highest standards of occupational health and safety.
Another critical influence upon the CUT is the spirit of cooperatives, and the creation of cooperative models will be applied, when feasible, to CUT business operations. The Center for Urban Transformation's programs will be centered spiritually and philosophically upon the principles of socially engaged Buddhism and traditional African spiritual concepts emphasizing humanity, caring, sharing and living in harmony.
The organization was founded by Orrin Williams the Executive Director in fellowship with the CUT Board of Directors. Orrin has received several awards for the work he has done on behalf of the CUT and serves on numerous committees and working groups including those listed in the following abbreviated list:
2009 Chicago Magazine Green Award Recipient
2008 LISC Community Hero Award for Englewood
Steering Committee Member Advocates for Urban Agriculture
Steering Committee Member Chicago Food Policy Council
Executive Committee Member Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC)
Co-Chair of Food Subcommittee of the Teamwork Englewood Food and Fitness Task Force
Member of Governor Quinn's Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council
Member of the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Working Group
Also Orrin has published several articles including but not limited to the following:
Food and Justice: Critical Link to Healthy Communities, Chapter appearing in Power, Justice and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, edited By David Pellow and Robert Brulle, 2005
Growing Home and the Emergence of Urban Agriculture in Chicago, Urban Agriculture Magazine, No. 18, September 2007. Publication of the Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security www.ruaf.org
Currently the primary focus of the CUT is the advancement of urban agriculture as a viable economic sector capable of providing a sizable portion of the nutrient needs of metropolitan Chicago residents; the development of a thriving local and regional food system and the creation of multiple pathways to food access for underserved communities.
The organization is also committed to challenging current orthodoxies around food and community such as the notion of the “food desert” and the flawed policy and development objectives being advanced as a result of the unchallenged assumptions engendered by the research supporting the claim that such a thing as a “food desert” exists.
Most notably the CUT challenges the notion that communities need access to chain or full service grocery stores as the solution to their food access and food security issues.
The CUT while not opposed to full service grocery stores, believes that a host of solutions exist but that there are monumental cultural, social and economic issues that make food access and security issues profoundly more complex than those acknowledged by the invention and the supporting research efforts that have come out of the “food desert” orthodoxy.
Briefly, if a community has culturally been removed from the kitchen and its foodways; then how does providing a full service grocery store solve the cultural and social problems that exist? It can’t solve the problem particularly when many people in the communities lack critical consumer and nutrition education.
Many hours have been spent observing the buying habits of Chicago residents and there are often times when customers in full service grocery stores have very few fresh produce items in their carts instead preferring highly processed grocery items laden with fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup as well as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.
The adage that the essentials of a healthy diet are found in the outer aisles of the grocery store still hold true and grocery stores are not the place to go if you don’t understand the underpinnings of the adage.
Instead community members need to learn how to cook and shop if we are to improve the public health profiles of our communities and grocery stores aren’t going to provide that education. Besides a cultural and social movement needs to be inaugurated that is committed to the development and maintenance of healthy individuals and communities from conception to the grave.
Another element in this is the historic lack of access to capital and wealth building in communities of people of African descent. When will policy and programs direct capital to those from underserved communities that want to create food based businesses dedicated to preventative health measures and sustainable communities?
Rather we have emanating from the notion of “food deserts” the concept that full service grocery stores are the solution and the corporate giveaways proposed by federal and state government agencies to the grocery industry rather than to small grocers, small and medium sized farmers and the infrastructure required to support these entrepreneurs and their operations.
Many chain grocers left underserved communities for reasons related to their decisions about the communities they wanted to locate in viz a viz their business models; alleged security concerns and other corporate decisions. Yet these entities will suddenly reappear if local, state and federal government agencies are willing to support their return, instead the CUT supports as stated earlier local and regional entrepreneurs that are producers or wholesale/retail operations.
We can go on but keep checking out the CUT blog for more on food and farm issues as well as issues related to our ecosystems and their health and sustainable community and economic development in Chicago, nationally and globally.