It’s grow time

The UIC Nutrition Teaching Garden

The “backyard” of the Applied Health Sciences Building at 1919 W. Taylor is now home to a teaching garden, courtesy of the AHS Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition.

This summer, clinical instructor and garden director Renea Solis is filling 9 raised beds with herbs, vegetables and fruits. Growing, harvesting and preparing the foods will be part of the curriculum in her Introduction to Foods course, open to all UIC students and required for nutrition undergraduates.

“I think the garden will help students discover different ingredients,” says Solis, emphasizing that the wide variety of plants will prompt students to be more creative about healthy alternatives to common options. “For example, basil isn’t just basil; we have six varieties of basil. We’ll look at how those can be used to season food instead of, say, salt.”

“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 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.

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.