Alex Poltorak has an interesting background – he’s a computer engineer and MBA-grad who completed a fellowship with the Chicago Public Schools to explore how nutrition affects children in school. What he found was that these kids were getting their main – and only – balanced meal while at school, but because many of the families had little access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, these kids were eating junk food – and little else – outside school hours.
While the lack of academic progress due to poor nutrition posed a serious issue, of greater concern, Poltorak found, was this issue that many of the kids lived in a food desert. When The Plant opened in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, the former stockyards of Chicago that for years has been plagued with gangs, crime and lack of fresh foods, Poltorak knew this soon-to-be center for vertical farming and sustainable business development would be the perfect outlet for him to further his mission to attack the food desert issue while also pursuing his farming aspirations.
“After working with Chicago public schoolsI saw how bad some of our education and food systems are and wanted to attack that, ” Poltorak said last Monday during one of the weekly public tours held at The Plant.
I wrote a snippet about The Urban Canopy, Poltorak’s non-profit farm “company” for a story on the Plant coming out in the Spring issue of Edible Chicago, but with a strict word count, wasn’t able to squeeze in everything I wanted to say about Alex and his project.
Without giving too much away from the article, let me just summarize that The Plant is the brainchild of industrial designer and Chicago history buff John Edel who saw this abandoned meatpacking building as the perfect place to create a closed-loop system – various tenants, from beer makers to bakers, aquaponic and hydroponic system growers and urban developers and farmers like Poltorak would work together to share ideas and resources and send their waste (namely in the form of the New Chicago Beer Co.’s spent grain) for use to “feed” the onsite anaerobic digester (natural energy generator) to stay “off the grid.” The spent grain will also feed the tilapia in the aquaponic systems and even make a showing in some of the bakers’ breads.
Here’s the really important part. There are currently eight days (end: Sat., Feb. 18) left for Poltorak to raise funds through Kickstarter to expand his vertical/hydroponic rooftop farm at The Plant to 3,000 square feet. So donate now if you like what he’s working on and his mission. He’ll even throw in a T-shirt, and of course, a chance to help out with the farming and snag some farm fresh goodies. (FYI – he’s always looking for interested volunteers, donation or not!)
What started last season as a small experiment found instant success. Poltorak started by growing six different varieties of chard, four different lettuces, a few different types of kale and 10 varieties of tomatoes and peppers as well as some other leafy greens and herbs. “We have the ability to grow the full range of a farm,” he says. Note to restaurants and caterers: Poltorak is currently selling sunflower seeds and pea sprouts so contact The Urban Canopy for more information if interested.
This season, Poltorak hopes to expand upon that growth, supplying to the local community, in part through donations to local food banks and social service providers, as well as to Chicago-area restaurants and caterers. He’s already working with one, Zullo’s, which has a stand at the Green City Market and may help Poltorak run some farm dinners up on the rooftop. He’s looking into starting a CSA this April or May and continuing into the summer after planting the now-sprouting seeds around mid-March. And, Poltorak is also working with After School Matters to bus in kids from the neighborhood and beyond to learn about farming and get their hands dirty.
“Our mission is to grow more of our food right here in the city in a sustainable way that reduces the many miles fresh food travels to get to our plates, creates local jobs, and enhances our communities,” Poltorak says. “Food and health is a big issue – there are 430,000 kids in the CPS system, and that’s our future.”