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New Program Aims to Turn City Teens into Urban Farmers

 Chicago students will learn to cross-breed plants, build a hydroponic garden and tap maple syrup in this after-school class.
After School Matters' Urban Garden Lab
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THE LOOP — City kids often have limited access to fresh produce, but After School Matters and the Chicago Botanic Garden are teaming up to turn those same kids into urban farmers.

The two organizations started the Urban Garden Scientists and Designers Program this week, but slots are still available for students interested in learning about growing fruits, vegetables and herbs in the middle of a concrete jungle.

"It's a little slice of plant science, nature examination, food systems training — this all sounds so boring!" joked Eliza Fournier, Urban Youth Programs Director with the Botanic Garden. "I'm trying to make this sound really sexy and exciting — basically, it's all about plants."

The lesson plan for the 11-week program aims to focus on those "sexy and exciting" parts of urban gardening. Students will work in a stainless steel urban garden lab at Gallery37, 66 E. Randolph St., outfitted with hydroponic planters and grow lights.

Longer weekend lessons include trips to tap maple syrup from trees and visits to flourishing urban farms.

Meeting Tuesdays and Thursdays and occasionally on the weekends, students will grow their own food, learn about nutrition and environmental sustainability through hands-on training. For some, participation will evolve into an apprenticeship or internship.

Alumni of earlier iterations of the program have gone on to pursue degrees in environmental science. Fournier said instructors are thrilled to see students find career paths in their classroom, but they see value in teaching all students the basics about where their food comes from.

"We absolutely think that being exposed to this kind of stuff and having experience with it, at the very least, makes young people appreciate where their food comes from," Fournier said. "The hard work that it takes, and the energy, and the environmental impact that their consumption can have."

The first class met Thursday, but students can still apply for several open slots in this and other After School Matters programs.

Register online at the After School Matters website, or by phone at 312-742-4182.