Drill team feeds families, greens community

July 31, 2009 (CHICAGO) The award-winning South Shore Drill Team is a familiar sight in summer parades. They call the Gary Comer Youth Center on the city's Southeast Side home.

But far above the various youth activities that occur there daily, something much more serene is underway. Students atop the building are tending what they call "rooftop crops."

"I got interested in being in the garden because it's so peaceful and everything up here and I always wanted to know what I'm cooking, where it's coming from, like just how it grow and everything," said Robert Haynes, Chicago Vocational Career Academy.

The young people are growing a variety of foods from the common to the exotic.

"It's a great experience for me. I really like it. It's something different in my life and as I get older, I can actually use this at my own house and maybe one day have my own garden," said Jemila Burton, South Shore High School.

On Friday afternoons, students studying culinary arts and business administration operate harvest tables -- selling the food and flowers to the community.

"We're trying to establish an urban food system where our youth are taking the lead and our youth are really the agents of change. So the idea is for them to learn how to grow food, how to harvest food, how to package it, how to distribute it, how to sell it and in filling that spectrum up, outlining to them what opportunities they might have," said Marjorie Hess, manager, Rooftop Garden.

They also sell their harvests to top restaurants, including the famed Table 52. One of the restaurant's chefs gave the students cooking demonstrations using ingredients from the garden. The goal is for community residents to learn how to incorporate the produce into their daily diets.

"It's inspiring to me to see kids actually harvesting this stuff," said Chef Rey Villalobos. "They have an understanding that things don't always come from a large company from somewhere in the world. It can be as easy as growing stuff in their own garden."

The collaboration also provides career opportunities for students. One Corliss High School graduate is interning at the restaurant this summer before heading to cooking school in the fall on a full scholarship.

"It's one of the most invigorating things you could do, because I'm learning hands-on what I'm planning to do in the future," said Denzel Thornton.

The rooftop farm is about a third of an acre and will yield about two-thousand pounds of produce. The garden is also open for tours. gcychome.org

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