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Chicago H.S. Puts Twist on Farm-to-Table With Food Lab-to-Cafeteria Harvest

By Patty Wetli | March 16, 2016 5:41am
 Schurz is the first CPS school certified to harvest lab-grown food and serve it in the cafeteria.
Schurz is the first CPS school certified to harvest lab-grown food and serve it in the cafeteria.
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Jaime Guerrero

OLD IRVING PARK — Here's one way to get teens to step away from the Flamin' Hot Cheetos and opt for salad at lunchtime instead: Have the kids grow the green stuff that their school cafeteria serves.

"Let them roll up their sleeves and say to their friends, 'Hey man, look what I grew,'" said Jaime Guerrero, co-founder of the Schurz High School Food Science Lab.

A marketing exec and one-time personal chef, Guerrero spearheaded efforts to not only bring hydroponics to Schurz at the beginning of the school year but to earn the certification required by CPS to use the lab's harvest in the school's cafeteria.

In a first for the school district, students at Schurz, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave., spent a recent afternoon in the Food Science Lab snipping nutrient-rich microgreens — arugula, radishes and lettuce — that were destined for the next day's school lunch. (To this point, the lab's produce has all been donated to the Irving Park Food Pantry.)

"We want students to choose healthier options. They'll choose when they have a relationship with the food," said Drew Thomas, school garden coordinator in CPS' office of student health and wellness.

That's the goal, although the actual student response was mixed.

In a video produced by Schurz students to capture the reaction of their peers to the greens, some of the teens proclaimed the salad fresh and flavorful while others rejected the salad outright.

[YouTube: Schurz High School]

Even students involved in the harvest weren't wholeheartedly supportive of the effort.

"I would eat it if I were in a dire position," freshman Natalie Pacheco said of the greens she was packaging in plastic bags.

All of which is to be expected, Schurz principal Dan Kramer said.

No pun intended, but at this stage, the infant Food Science Lab is still in the process of planting the seeds of change, though "there's a readiness to take things to the next level," Kramer said.

It's been less than a year since Guerrero, who lives in Old Irving Park, approached the school about setting up an urban farm.

"I believe we need to embrace a more sustainable society," Guerrero said.

Microgreens don't even require soil to grow: The seeds are planted in burlap salvaged from coffee roasters and "fed" with nutrient-enhanced water that re-circulates through a pump system, ultimately requiring a fraction of the water used in conventional farming.

Even the Food Science Lab itself is repurposed, housed in a former shop class.

"It's very hot, it leaks, it's got all these crazy pipes — it was hard to know what to put in here. It's been a hand-me-down room," Kramer said.

"Jaime's eyes lit up when he saw it," the principal said. "Everything that made it difficult as a classroom made it perfect as a greenhouse."

Crops mature every 12 days, providing students with constant, near-immediate gratification.

"They're excited when they see things grow," Guerrero said.

Currently, the Food Science Lab is tended to during the day by Junior ROTC students and after school by student volunteers who earn credit toward service learning hours as part of a program managed by Build On.

In the coming school year, the plan is to add courses in botany and environmental science to Schurz's curriculum, and to use the lab as a career development opportunity and healthy therapy space for the school's special education students, Kramer said.

"I really want to get into soil studies and photosynthesis," science teacher Lauren Bauknecht said. "It really is a dream to apply [science] to real life. We can put these plants under a microscope and see cells."

The applications are endless, Thomas added.

"This is nutrition education, this is science, this is math, this is engineering, this is entrepreneurship," he said.

And some days, it's even lunch.

A Schurz student harvests vertically grown greens. [Jaime Guerrero]

Nick Greens (l), who runs his own urban garden at The Plant, has been assisting students at Schurz with the operation of the school's Food Science Lab. [Jaime Guerrero]

From lab to cafeteria. [Jaime Guerrero]

Microgreens, springing out of burlap. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

The Food Science Lab is housed in a former shop class, which turned out to be the perfect greenhouse. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

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