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Chicago’s Tomato Man on mission to help others rethink tomatoes

To Bob Zeni, a perfectly round and perfectly red store-bought tomato is something to look at but not to touch. In fact, Zeni hasn’t purchased a tomato since 1990. He grows his own heirloom tomatoes to avoid buying what he calls “tasteless travesties” or “red water balloons.”

“Gardening itself is very satisfying and certainly enjoyable,” Zeni said. “Seeing the way it looks is beautiful.” For more than a decade, Zeni has followed the same routine.

Zeni, who was dubbed the “Chicago Tomato Man” by his daughter, has more than 4,000 heirloom tomato plants in a greenhouse that stretches as far as a city block. Inside are more than 100 varieties of the fruit, ranging from big red beefsteak tomatoes to dark and smooth Black Beauty tomatoes and vibrant yellow Golden Grape tomatoes that can brighten up any salad.

Starting this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Zeni started working alongside Gardeneers volunteers in their spacious greenhouses. Gardeneers is a nonprofit organization that uses school garden programs to teach students about nature, nutrition, how to cultivate fresh fruits and vegetables, and how to help the planet at a local level.

Adam Zmick, CEO of Gardeneers, said Zeni’s planting is aligned with what the organization does and is a way to better support school gardens. “How it works is that a team of garden educators visit our 16 schools at least once a week to get students hands-on in the garden,” Zmick said. “(Zeni) needs a lot of hands to do all this stuff so we are able to contribute and we can earn some income to help support our school gardens.

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