The “farm to table” trend of serving only the freshest, most local food has taken over the culinary scene in cities like Chicago, and for good reason: Eating organically-grown, locally-sourced food has been shown to be a healthy choice for people and the planet.
But what about the 800,000 Chicagoans living with food insecurity? A group of buildOn students at Carl Schurz High School think they deserve to eat healthy foods too, and they’re using science and service to improve access to fresh food in their school and community.
The students volunteer weekly to maintain the Schurz Food Science Lab, an urban farm program that teaches urban youth to grow food with techniques like hydroponics while giving back to the community. The lab, a former shop room in the Northwest Side high school, is filled with vibrant greens and purples growing in sterile white laboratory containers. Bright growing lights shine down on rows of arugula, radishes and lettuce, as the quiet gurgling of a water filter fills the cavernous room. On most days, the lab is also filled with buildOn students, tending to plants, harvesting greens and helping maintain the equipment.
Marco Mata, a buildOn student and senior at Schurz, says he’s learned more about sustainable farming than he could have imagined since the lab started last year. “When I first walked into the food science lab at my school I had no idea how we were going to build it,” he recalls. “There was equipment everywhere and I thought ‘how are we going to grow food in here?”
buildOn students at Schurz act as the liaisons between the lab, the school and their community. They’ve grown food used in their school’s cafeteria and they’re also giving it away to the local food pantries where they serve. In Chicago, ‘food deserts’ (communities with little or no access to healthy food) are a huge problem for the city’s poorest residents and the Schurz buildOn students are working to help their neighbors in need.
“When we began to donate the greens harvested in the food science lab to the food pantry I got really excited,” Marco says. “When we serve at the food pantry there isn’t much fresh produce. There is a lot of canned food and oftentimes a lot of junk food. I was happy to know we were part of providing healthy food to the people of our community.”
The Schurz Food Science Lab is the brainchild of Jaime Guerrero, a marketing exec and chef who lives a few blocks from the high school. Like most chefs, Jaime is always searching for the most efficient way to get the best produce year round. When a friend turned Jaime on to hydroponic gardening, Jaime knew it was an opportunity to do more than just harvest his own produce. He wanted to get youth from the community involved, too.
“Appreciating sustainable and healthy foods is huge for me,” Jaime says. “If I can grow this industry by making it accessible to today’s youth and train them in it, well, that’s how we’ll change the world.”
So far, Jaime is blown away on the impact that lab is having on the students and their community. “These students are invested, interested in learning and proud to eat the food the lab produces,” Jaime says. “They are improving their community while learning valuable skills as hydroponic growers themselves.”
Marco says the experience has him thinking about a career in urban farming. “I applied to be a lab intern this summer. This is not an easy career choice, but I would love to train to become a master grower,” Marco says, his voice bursting with excitement.
The Schurz Food Science Lab is introducing buildOn students like Jovanny Hernandez to healthier foods, and he says he’s taking the skills he’s learned into his community. “The food we grow I’ve never heard of or eaten before, I had no idea all this was possible,” Jovanny says. “I love the teamwork we do in the lab as part of buildOn. I’ve learned new skills I never thought possible. My involvement in the lab has inspired my neighbors to start a garden and I’m helping them, teaching them about the vegetables we grow in the Schurz Food Science Lab.”
The Schurz Food Science Lab has even begun to supply greens to the cafeteria, making Schurz the only high school in Chicago to serve hydroponically grown food on site. The project isn’t just teaching students valuable skills while feeding the school and community. It’s also good for the planet. The microgreens are planted in recycled burlap sacks from coffee roasters and sustained on nutrient-enriched water that re-circulates through a pump system that uses a fraction of the water used in conventional farming.
This spring, the students also began growing tomato seeds that traveled to space through an international program called Tomatosphere in a student-built Food Computer that sends information directly to MIT. Next school year, they’ll be adding prawns in another aquaponics system
The sustainable service happening in Chicago is just one of the ways buildOn students are cultivating compassion in their neighborhoods and harvesting change in their communities.
Check out this video of buildOn, Schurz High School and other community partners introducing the Schurz Food Science Lab, and see more photos of Jaime and the buildOn students serving in the lab below: