On the west side of Chicago is a little oasis, a food forest in a formerly vacant lot with tomatoes by the handful and pears and apples ready to pick.
This green site in the 1300 block of South Pulaski Road in the North Lawndale community is part of a grade 10 to 12 alternative school and charter high school for students who had left other schools. Urban agriculture has grown to be an important part of this inner-city high school. The CCA Academy has six lots that had been filled with debris. In 2017-18, the school started to develop them, planting 70 fruit trees and bushes in the food forest.
“Food forests take five to seven years, and we are in our fourth year,” said Myra Sampson, the school’s principal, CEO, and founder 43 years ago. The project stemmed from her interest in teaching students about healthy foods. “It’s amazing how much progress has been made,” said Nancy Zook, the school’s director of sustainability and community engagement, who has been a teacher here for 14 years.
The food forest is still a work in progress, said Andrew Hockenberry, the school’s sustainability assistant. It’s not picture-perfect but has a practical beauty, with crops for the picking and spots to sit and enjoy nature in the heart of the city — North Lawndale, one of the poorest communities in Chicago.
In science, students learn about composting, aquaponics, and growing plants. They also learn about various ag and science-related careers, including food photography, said Kehkanshan Khan, a science teacher who holds a degree in botany. “Sustainability is the theme,” she said, recounting projects students have done, including growing and eating microgreens and a memorable vermiculture project where a student raised earthworms in a shoebox.
Hockenberry, the school’s sustainability assistant, uses the school’s giant aquarium in teaching students about aquaculture. He also cultivates student interest in aquaponics as well as agriculture in the food forest. Students are introduced to food and crops they may not have tried before. They tasted grilled zucchini and grew popcorn, Zook said.
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