By Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor
Ask Chicagoan Jaime Guerrero about his latest venture and the passion in his voice is unmistakable.
A businessman by day working at one of the world’s largest marketing communications firms, Jaime is passionate about food: where it comes from, how it’s grown, and of course, cooking. As a trained personal chef, he regularly holds underground dinner events using only the highest quality ingredients he can find.
“Over the years, I’ve developed relationships with several farmers in Illinois and Indiana, where I purchase beef, pork, and other meats and produce,” says Guerrero. He also grows his own herbs, but struggles with Chicago’s short growing season.
To help overcome Chicago’s weather challenges, he began learning about sustainable farming and the Good Food Movement. “As a chef, I want quality ingredients that I know more about or can grow myself. At the end of the day, it comes down to knowing about the food: how we source it, where we source it,” he says.
“A farmer once told me that it takes seven gallons of water to grow a head of lettuce in California; 12 gallons in Arizona. With indoor farming, it takes about 1/3 gallon to grow the same head of lettuce.
“Not only do we need a change, as a community we need to push for it. It’s possible to have an alternative to our current agriculture system.”
Jaime did more than think about the possibilities. He began to act.
He spoke with local chefs who are already practicing indoor farming and have connections with regional farmers for their own restaurants. “Look at it simply: you do the work, you do the farming, and you know exactly what you’re planting and when it will be available so you can grab what you need while you’re cooking.”
For Guerrero, this sparked an idea: what if he could – with help from those skilled in indoor farming practices – develop a fast casual restaurant that grows all of its food? Guerrero talked about his vision to friends, neighbors, and his Alderman, who connected Guerrero with Dan Kramer, principal at Carl Schurz High School on Chicago’s northwest side. Schurz is part of the Chicago Public School (CPS) system and the third largest high school in Illinois, with 2,200 students.
Good Food Meets Food Science
Guerrero needed a testing ground and ultimately a skilled workforce for his concept, and Kramer quickly agreed to house a working urban farm at Schurz: he had space at the school and is always looking for ways to reinvigorate the students and the community with new programs.
In addition, CPS is already a strong supporter of the local food movement. Serving about 75 million meals annually to its 400,000 students, CPS has purchased more than $10 million in fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables from local farmers in the past six years as part of their foodservice program.
“For Schurz, this expands beyond a farming program,” Kramer says. “Our engineering, business, and chemistry programs will also be involved.”
Students from various programs will build and manage the farm, taking complete ownership of the farm’s operations. The farm will be housed in a former shop space in the 100-year-old school building and will contain a series of hydroponic systems with both natural and grow light. It will also serve as a teaching room, where students, faculty and community can come to learn about the farm.
“Ideally, the goal is for the farm to produce a real yield that can be used by the community,” Kramer says. “Not just for learning, but enough so that we can make partnerships with local restaurants in the area and provide fresh produce to food pantries.” Future plans include adding hydroponics and shrimp farming to the program.
Learn and Work Together
Two Chicago chefs have already agreed to purchase produce from their yield and also offer some students work in their kitchens for real-life experience and added education.
“From one idea has come a full program for Schurz. The farm is about skills that students can use, their education, learning about sustainability and good food, and giving back to the community,” says Guerrero.
“This isn’t a culinary arts program; it’s a biology lab. We’re teaching botany, physics and chemistry. We’re looking at the engineering and science of creating an urban sustainable farming project,” says Kramer. “It also connects our students with social studies issues: hunger, food deserts, locally produced food, and the economics of all that.”
“There’s a quote by Fuller that I like,” says Guerrero, “‘In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.’ That’s what we’re working towards.”
Structural work is underway and Kramer is compiling the team of students and faculty to work the farm. He plans to be up and running in the fall when school starts.
For more information about the project, be sure to check out the YouTube video below: