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Academy for Global Citizenship Strives for a Net-Positive Experience

Sarah Elizabeth Ippel had a vision. In fact, beginning at the ripe age of 23, she spent 2 years pounding on the Chicago Board of Education's doors — figuratively speaking — until they considered her proposal for a green charter school.

Julia O’Grady, director of kitchen services, serves breakfasts and lunches that meet the federal nutrition guidelines to students. The AGC sources its ingredients from local farms. Photo by Danyel DuncanAfter much determination, rewritten proposals and extra fundraising, she was given the go-ahead in 2007 to build the now 300-student K-5 Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC) by converting a 12,000-square-foot former barrel factory on the Southwest Side of Chicago near Midway Airport. Five years later, the school expanded to another building five blocks away. The aspiring "net-positive" campus boasts the city's first school-specific comprehensive organic food program as well as an on-site garden and other sustainability initiatives. FE&S caught up with Dan Schnitzer, the current director of sustainability and operations for the school to learn more.

Now in its fifth year, the foundation of AGC "is rooted in environmental stewardship and global education with the idea that our environment is so linked to everything we do, and that we can have a more positive impact on the world around us," says Schnitzer. "Food is definitely central to all of this."

At AGC, the children grow some of their own food; learn to compost; eat nutritious, organic, locally sourced meals cooked from scratch; and even practice daily yoga. The school also teaches the students and their families how to shop for nutritious foods by planning field trips to area grocery stores. During the warmer months, AGC opens up a student-run farmer's market for the community, teaching the kids more about food production and the business of farming and food.

Getting to Zero Waste

Central to AGC's mission is achieving a "net-positive" campus. "The idea is to do at least enough to get you to the positive — in energy generation versus in use, in life, and in social interaction," Schnitzer says.
A play on the term "net-zero" waste or energy, AGC has gotten closer to its net-positive goal by installing solar panels for renewable, off-the-grid energy; composting and recycling pre- and post-consumer waste in the kitchen, dining areas and classrooms; and installing energy-efficient lighting and cooking and cooling equipment where possible. "We started a zero-waste club, where we reward and praise students that eat what's on their plate rather than discarding items," Schnitzer says, being careful to note that portion sizes are at the right size to prevent over-serving in the first place.

"We're not about all-you-can-eat, and because we're part of the National School Lunch program, our portion sizes are very defined," he says. "But we serve our students a well-balanced meal with some choices, such as between a kale salad or rainbow vegetable salad. They're not choosing between cookies or salad."

Rather than using disposables, the school relies on durable ceramic bowls for salads and cereals as well as other permanentware. Students place food scraps and napkins into the compost bins positioned next to the area where they place their plates and flatware after mealtimes. "Nothing ends up in a landfill, and it's important that our students see that," Schnitzer says. AGC staff walk kindergarten and first-grade students through the dining and composting process so they can learn the proper steps. The school also assigns students compost monitoring duties on a rolling basis.

Compost bins are located throughout the kitchen as well. The only thing that does go into the garbage? "Every once in a while we need to throw away plastic packaging or some heavily soiled wax paper used to cook something," Schnitzer says. Even still, AGC has worked with its suppliers to buy more in bulk and cut down on manufacturer packaging in general. One success story involved working with a local bread supplier that originally delivered loaves of bread in cardboard boxes. "We bought reusable, plastic food-grade bins for them to use instead," he says. The move helped reduce waste — even recyclable waste — by 80 percent.

On-Site Gardens

While achieving zero carbon footprint is impossible, sourcing food from as nearby as possible, and growing and raising food on-site cuts down that much more on the excessive trucking and transportation plaguing the current food system, according to Schnitzer.

From the get-go, the AGC looked to build an on-site farm to produce some of its own food. That vision now is a reality in the form of two gardens: one at the main building where the kitchen is located, with 18 raised beds and a 16- by 32-foot greenhouse, and the other at a second location with 16 raised beds.

"We broke ground in a heavily industrial area to build our two schoolyard gardens," says Schnitzer, adding that the team had some help from local farmers and the students themselves. "They [the kids] plant, weed, till and test the soil, water the plants and harvest the produce when ready. We oversee the garden maintenance, but having the children in charge of it helps them get more excited about produce and growing food, and then they're more interested in trying it." Because students begin working in the garden as early as kindergarten, by the third grade, regular maintenance of the garden becomes second nature, Schnitzer says.

Last year, the students grew 25 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, along with sweet and hot peppers, leafy greens (including lots of kale), radishes, carrots, herbs, squash, corn, beans and peas. "The kids pick out a lot of what we end up growing," Schnitzer says. "A couple years ago they wanted to grow pineapple so we had the opportunity to explain why we couldn't do that here. But instead we introduced them to dragon peas with purple and white stripes to get them thinking of other unique vegetables they could plant. The idea is that not everything will look like what you get in the grocery store."

Near the garden, chickens scatter about thanks to an on-site coop, but Schnitzer says the school sticks to vegetarian-friendly chicken raising, using only the birds' nutritious eggs. The campus grounds also feature native prairie grasses and other vegetation, rainwater collection systems and other green areas for the kids to experiment and learn about agriculture.

Part of the AGC's mission, Schnitzer says, is to "produce a replicable model for learning in the 21st century, through the construction of a net-positive-energy school building," whereby the learning environment serves as the "third teacher." AGC says it intends to incorporate a minimum of three acres of urban agriculture into its campus, including the vegetable gardens, greenhouse and some orchard space.

The school is also looking into installing an open-loop geothermal system to filter and clean any groundwater

Local Food Safety

Growing and then cooking your own food in a commercial setting like school foodservice requires its own set of food safety rules.

In fact, the AGC wrote its own food safety manual for handling the produce and eggs from the school's garden. "We have been working with Chartwells, CPS [Chicago Public Schools], [a local nonprofit connecting farmers, residents and chefs] and the Chicago Botanical Gardens for two years to write a school garden food safety manual that CPS and Chartwells approve," Schnitzer says. "In fact, we just finished training using our manual. Assuming the pilot goes well, it may be adopted by Chartwells and CPS so even more schools can grow and use their own food. Schools are not expert gardeners or farmers so we thought there needed to be a heighted level of knowledge and a more user-friendly guide."

That document includes hand-washing guidelines, lists of proper gardening and sanitizing tools, and instructions on maintaining proper temperatures during harvest and storage so "you don't have tomatoes sitting out for hours," Schnitzer says. The guide also teaches soil testing. "A lot of people don't realize that you can't just start growing something directly in the ground, but that you need to create a safe growing surface first."