The Food Science Lab is Teaching Students to Grow Food in a Chicago High School

At the Food Science Lab in Chicago, high school students are using hydroponic and aquaponic growing systems to raise vegetables for school lunches and more.


Kids Learning Hydroponic Growing in Food Science LabCarl Schurz High School isn’t technically located in a “food desert,” but it might as well be. Nine out of 10 students attending this Chicago high school come from low-income households, where highly processed foods and fast food are the norm.

Yet, a surprising development is unfolding within these very walls. On a particularly cold February day, with snow still on the ground, many Carl Schurz students were served fresh micro-greens as part of their Chicago Public School-provided lunch.

“Wow, it’s fresh as hell,” one student declared as he tasted his salad. “It actually tastes pretty good.”

For many students, it’s not only one of the first times they’ve tasted fresh greens, it’s the first time they’ve been able to trace the origin of their food. Granted, it’s easy in this case because it came from the Food Science Lab located on the first floor of their school, in a former English classroom.

The micro-greens were grown alongside arugula and kale by their fellow classmates in hydroponics and aquaponics systems. Twice a week students come to the lab to do everything from testing the pH balance of the water to laying out burlap to grow more micro-greens. The greens are harvested every week and used in the cafeteria almost daily.

This is just the beginning, says Jaime Guerrero, co-founder of the Food Science Lab and a budding restaurateur. A trained chef, Guerrero eventually wants to open a fully-sustainable restaurant in which he grows his own produce within the same walls of his restaurant. The Food Science Lab is an experiment of sorts for him, too, but he admits that his focus at the moment is to help the lab get to the point where it can grow food for outside companies, such as local restaurants, as well as continue to feed the students and local food pantry participants. To make that happen, he needs to attract more funding.

Until then, they’re doing what they can, which isn’t insignificant. This spring, the students began growing tomato seeds that traveled to space through an international program called Tomatosphere in a student-built Food Computer. Next school year, they’ll be adding prawns in another aquaponics system.

Growing More Than Food

Carl Schurz High School has long faced funding shortages and lagging test scores. And while tests scores have been improving, academic progress has been slower to fix. Only 11 percent of the school’s graduates are “college-ready,” according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

In addition to teaching students how to grow fresh food, the Food Science Lab provides lessons on everything from math and technology to engineering, marketing, healthy eating, and the value of knowing your food’s provenance. It has also become a source of pride for the students and a space of refuge throughout the day for both students and administrators alike. It’s not unusual for teachers to bring their lunch into the lab, says Dan Kramer, principal of the high school. “The Food Science Lab provides a beautiful, healthy space to relax and reconnect.”

Food access and sustainability are at the core of the work the Food Science Lab hopes to do. Its focus is to examine what it means to provide healthy and nutritious food in the absence of immediate access or nutrient-rich soil. Like any science experiment, if proven successful, the lab’s work can be replicated in schools throughout the country and internationally to help fix a broken food system.

“The problem of healthy food production is an increasingly critical issue due to the demands on the planet of a growing population, deforestation, and global warming,” says Kramer. “Our Food Science Lab represents cutting-edge thinking in regard to use of indoor/urban space for food production.”Jaime Guerrero, Co-Founder of Food Science Lab - Photo credit Megy Karydes

Feeding Sustainability

The idea for the lab came about when Guerrero started looking for a place to grow the greens for his restaurant. Talks with various people led him to Carl Schurz High School.

With the help of a generous anonymous donor, Guerrero bought two small hydroponics and aquaponics systems which he worked with students to build. Today, the systems produce a modest 400 pounds of food

Guerrero believes these types of growing systems can help solve major problems in the food system, by growing food using much less water and without the need for soil.

The drought in California has become a teachable moment for Guerrero, who explains to the students how much drinking water is required to grow simple produce like a head of lettuce outdoors compared to these systems. Nick Greens, a master grower and the class’ co-teacher, estimates that it takes three quarters of a gallon of water to grow one head of lettuce in a hydroponics system under regular conditions compared to 3.5 gallons or more of fresh water needed to grow that same head of lettuce on a traditional farm.

Greens says he hopes to train a generation of farmers that are “familiar with traditional agriculture, but also very well-versed in new technology not afraid of pushing boundaries, but appreciate the impact on the environment. They also want to grow tasty food but are conscious about nutritional values as well.” He sees hydroponics as two of the best ways to achieve all of these goals.

Guerrero says the students are most surprised at how quickly things grow in the water-based systems. “From seed to harvest, micro-greens take 12 days,” says Greens.

Greens splits his time between volunteering for the Food Science Lab and his 300-foot indoor corner garden at the Plant, a former meatpacking plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood that now houses a thriving urban farm and a food business incubator.

Another unexpected benefit is that some of students are now becoming teachers. “We have the seniors teaching the juniors,” says Greens, who notes that the students are satisfying the school’s required service learning hours by tending to the indoor gardens.

Growing Pains

One would think providing free, nutrient-dense foods to a population not known for having such access might be no-brainer. Yet, it took a solid five months for the students to get that first taste because Chicago Public Schools (CPS) wouldn’t allow food grown inside their own walls to be served at lunch.

“When we first established this program, CPS would not allow us to bring food into the cafeteria,” admits Guerrero. Because the school worked with an outside company, Aramark, which had its own set of food safety standards, he had to enlist the help of Drew Thomas, CPS’s school garden coordinator. Thomas helped the high school take the necessary food safety courses and meet all of the requirements within five months of the Food Science Lab’s launch.

In the meantime, with Guerrero’s restaurant is still in the planning phase the lab had begun donating their food to a nearby food pantry. While the food pantry appreciates fresh produce anytime of the year, they’re especially grateful for it during the winter, says Guerrero, since most of their donations are starches and canned food.

“We’re building [the Food Science Lab] not just for learning, but also as a real contribution to the school and this community and by doing so we’ll have a harvest that actually feeds people,” he says.

 

Photos by Megy Karydes.

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