East Meets West: Urban garden shows students big picture

East Meets West is a collaboration of Provost Susan Poser and Vice Chancellor of Health Affairs Robert Barish.

Where does your food come from?

When preparing dishes in class, nutrition students in the College of Applied Health Sciences can point to their shared backyard on Taylor Street, which houses one of the college’s new and most important “classrooms ” — the UIC Nutrition Teaching Garden. There, students follow the growth of their produce and other food-bearing plants from seeding to harvest time to holistically study what goes into making high-quality foods and nutritious meals.

“We need them to know the big picture,” said Renea Solis, clinical instructor in kinesiology and nutrition.

The program uses biological and physical science to teach undergraduates about nutrition and its relationship to human health. In other words, students’ understanding of meals and food starts from the ground up.

“Part of that is going back to the farm,” said Solis, who grew up living and working on farms in Indiana.

In Chicago, that’s harder to do. So, with contributions from biological sciences, Solis and her colleagues brought the farm to students instead. And their efforts have been recognized with a Chicago Excellence in Gardening Award.

Last year, she started seeds for the Nutrition Teaching Garden at AHS, but to grow a larger variety of plants, some weren’t sown there. Instead, Solis started them at the UIC Greenhouse and Plant Research Lab, near Union and Taylor streets, where master gardener Matthew Frazel is based.

“I’ve worked in gardens my whole life,” said Frazel, who now manages the UIC greenhouse, 3,600 feet of controlled growth space that supports faculty research and other initiatives on and off campus.

“So I have a pretty good sense of the things that you need to have like access to water, good light and soil.”

Frazel gave AHS helpful advice about those essentials when the AHS garden was in its early stages of development. Since it was built, he’s offered more: an extra pair of expert eyes and hands.

“In the Chicago area, you sometimes need space to put plant material to get a bit of a head start. So we set up a plan for how [Solis] could do that here,” Frazel said.

Solis started seeds for tomatoes, onions and a variety of herbs in the greenhouse, where staff fertilize plants, control room temperatures and keep pests away. The partnership has also allowed AHS staff to extend their growing season and get support when seasons change.

“It’s a cooperative relationship,” Frazel said. “We like to support green things overall at the university.”

“It’s been really helpful to have [Frazel’s] input and knowledge,” said Solis, adding that he also checks plants for diseases. Some can wipe out an entire crop if they’re not spotted quickly enough.

Thanks to the collaboration, some students can seed plants and visit the garden for about 15 minutes during class. Most students focus on harvesting the plants. Others volunteer and work to maintain the garden with Solis during the summertime and when classes aren’t in session. “Growing food takes a lot of attention and work and that’s one thing we want to convey to students. Food doesn’t just show up on grocery shelves,” Solis said.

Four classes — Foods 110, Culture and Food, Cooking and Healing Wellness and Science of Foods — will be using produce and other food from the garden this semester to cook dishes with quinoa, corn, eggplants, onions, shallots, bok choy, basil, broccoli, cabbage, swiss chard and more.

“Our garden really is a valuable teaching space,” Solis said.