Growing local and sustainable might not be such a reach as many think, thanks to hydroponics and a group of recent graduates from Oak Park and River Forest High School, who, along with their teacher, are working to bring more awareness to how you too can grow your own produce. 

Environmental Science teacher Michelle Zhang said the primary goal of the project is producing fresh fruits and vegetables to increase the supply of locally grown produce this summer. 

“We live in Oak Park, very urban, close proximity to Chicago, so fresh fruit and vegetables are not necessarily equally accessible to everybody,” Zhang said. “Growing the food, using the lab resources we already have in place is important to us to help with food deserts and making sure everybody is eating healthy greens.” 

The team, which consists of Zhang and six OPRF students, are using hydroponic and aquaponic farming to produce their food, which will be donated to Beyond Hunger, the local food pantry, which provides hunger-relief services to areas in Cook County, including Oak Park.  

Hydroponics is a type of horticulture that involves growing plants or crops without soil using water-based nutrients. Aquaponics is the combination of hydroponics along with fish and other aquatic animals that produce waste, which will be converted into nutrients for the plants to grow, while their roots clean and filter the water for the fish to live in. 

“Our second goal is to educate people about what hydroponics is and how you can do it on a small scale at home or with a class, anything that is more feasible for individuals,” Zhang said, noting that part of the education includes speaking about sustainability and how hydroponics can be part of the solution while addressing disparities in food equity. 

The project grew out of the interest of students, many of whom took an environmental science class with Zhang last year. All of those participating qualify as student employees through the school and are paid hourly to help with the growing, cleaning, and community education portions of the program. 

Recent graduate Eli Landsman, 17, said the great thing about hydroponics is the ability to control the environment in which the plants and produce are being grown,

“You can manage all of your inputs very easily and that helps you stay very controlled in the process, which allows you to do it almost anywhere since you can control what you need and what you have,” Landsman said. 

Currently, they are growing basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro, and lettuce while working toward growing spinach, strawberries, and flowers. 

Environmental Science teacher Michelle Zhang harvests basil to bring to Beyond Hunger. | Provided.

Aside from donating food to Beyond Hunger, Landsman said they are working on educating the community not only on the benefits of hydroponics but also how community members can do it as well, providing another source for food into the community. 

Ella Suchomel, 18, another recent graduate, said they have a few BASE Camp tours lined up through the Oak Park Education Foundation, which will allow children to come through the lab where the food is being grown and learn about the process. 

Suchomel said they will show students how to use mason jars to grow produce. Additionally, they are hoping to work along with OPRF High School to open the lab for tours by community members. 

“It is always great to educate people on a way that they can produce something healthy for themselves and others,” Landsman said, by providing people with information that can lead to the development and spread of healthy habits.

Zhang said they plan to set up a stand for educational purposes at the Oak Park Farmers Market on Saturday, July 15.

“We will be there to invite people to look at how hydroponics works,” Zhang said, “give them a quick rundown of how you can potentially do this at home so community members see it and have their interest sparked.” 

Annelise Dusterberg, 18, who will be attending Colorado State University in the fall, said her interest was piqued after learning about hydroponics in class and loved the idea of contributing to the community. 

“It really is not that difficult to do,” Dusterberg said. “It is pretty straightforward and easy for anyone and there is really no downside to it. Not only does it help the environment, but it provides healthy food for people to eat.”

“We have the resources in Oak Park and we want to share that with really anybody who is interested,” said Zhang.

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