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A farm grows in a Northwest Side high school

Chef Jaime Guerrero has a dream of opening a fully sustainable restaurant in the Old Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago. To refine that model, he’s turning to an unlikely partner: Schurz High School, located almost literally in his Old Irving backyard.  

“Imagine that you have a restaurant where everything you eat is grown, farmed, harvested, crafted or brewed in that facility,” he says of the restaurant that he hopes to open by the end of next year.  

But first he needs to perfect the indoor vertical farming model, which is the task he has put before Schurz students working in the new Food Science Lab. The lab is housed in a 105-year-old classroom that used to host industrial arts classes. But today the white-tiled room, capped with a large glass skylight, is filled with white trays and towers that are expected to be filled with lettuce, herbs and microgreens by the end of the year.

On a recent morning, lab organizer Cyd Smillie was setting up the space for a fundraiser for the last key element in the lab: LED grow lights. The fundraising continues here.

Smillie lives in the area and works for Ald John Arena’s (45th) office.

“I loved his idea and it seemed to me ...Schurz was the perfect place to develop some of the technology and train the staff,” said Smillie, who is also an artist. “We talked to [the late] chef Homaro Cantu who was an area resident, about the sustainable agriculture he was working on in his own restaurant and how training food handlers for it was already an issue in the city.”

The Schurz Food Science Lab served as an English literature industrial arts classroom over the last 100 years. But it should be filled with trays of hydroponic lettuce, herbs and greens by the end of the year. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

The Schurz program hopes to certify all of its students as trained food handlers. And Smillie says the lab will serve as a classroom for several AP and International Baccalaureate science classes.

But she also notes less obvious uses for the program and lab. These include use as a therapeutic space for students with low-level autism and as a business project for classes in entrepreneurship and marketing. The school’s JROTC program has also gotten involved.

“Those students go on to Peace Corps and National Guard and work post-disaster or war situations where they have to set up food systems,” she said. “So they have been instrumental in helping set up the lab so far, and we’re teaching them how to set up these very portable systems to help grow food in those kinds of post-crisis situations.”

Schurz High School is more than 100 years old, but it’s launching a lab to refine the future of urban agriculture. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

The group is working with a volunteer organization called Build Up, which will help distribute the produce to area food pantries. But Smillie says she hopes that one day the students will get to incorporate it into school food.

“CPS has a protocol for certification so we need to be certified as a growing facility and as food handlers,” she explained. “But after we achieve that we have a roster of area chefs who will teach the kids how to use them and then we would like them to go into the lunchrooms here, once CPS says we are allowed to do that.”

Principal Dan Kramer has embraced the program as a way to help restore the place of schools in communities.

“I want to bring schools back to a role they had when they were really the heart of the neighborhood,” he said, “not just families sending their kids there for school but places for performances, exhibits and social celebrations, really making [them] open to the public.”

Smillie says that, if they can refine the model, it won’t just help launch Guerrero’s restaurant but many more food labs across the city.

“Ideally it’s a pilot project we can take to other schools in food deserts,” she said. “There, it won’t be just an academic exercise but a job training program and a food supply chain, to not just the students and school but to the communities they serve.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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