Chicago Lights Urban Farm Indoor Culinary Garden Project

Final report for YENC23-191

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2023: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Chicago Lights
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Manager:
Joi Brooks
Chicago Lights
Project Co-Managers:
Stacy Jackson
Chicago Lights
Paxton Suggs
Chicago Lights
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Project Information


Our paid teen farm internship is adding a culinary component that consists of both piloting the University of Illinois Extension's 4-H "Food Action Academy" curriculum and learning actual cooking and nutrition skills by working with Chicago Lights Social Service Center (CLSSC) and Fourth Presbyterian Church's (FPC) hot and bagged food program which prepares more than 3,000 meals a month for those experiencing a lack of access to food.

To further secure the sustainability of this program in relation to food costs, the students will create an indoor culinary garden by designing and installing portable grow-racks in our meeting room.

Project Objectives:
  1. Students will design and build portable grow racks that encompass a variety of growing styles including container, hydroponic, aquaponic, vertical, soil-based, etc.
  2. Students will use the produce they grow at the Urban Farm to augment the ingredients of the meals that they help to design, prepare, and distribute through the partner organizations’ meals program.
  3. Students will consistently document and share their process, progress, and results with the wider community through social media campaigns, and in-person educational workshops with our partners, and pursue entry into 4-H events/conferences relevant to this project.

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 On-farm demonstrations

Participation Summary:

18 Youth
1 Educators
Education/outreach description:

Teens participating in the Chicago Lights Urban Farm’s 2023 Summer Session began their hydroponic journey learning the basics of the Kratky technique, which is a no-power, set-it-and-forget-it style of growing purely in nutrient solution. Using this method, students placed a plant in a container that contained all of the water and nutrients necessary for its full life cycle. Once watered and situated, there was no need to tend to the plant any further except to ensure that the light and temperature were correct.


Initially, we used standard 2" net cups holding seedlings and drilled a 2" hole in 32-ounce sports drinks bottles, but soon realized that we would speed through net cups, which were not free, at an alarming rate as within a week, we had planted more than 200 seedlings and were not even close to capacity.


For this reason, we looked into utilizing modified pool noodles as used by Hoocho and Mike Van Durze on YouTube. We cut pool noodles into 1" slices with a portion of the circumference removed (think of removing a bite from a donut). You can then take the "bite" from the pool noodle, invert it, and use it to secure a seedling in holes of all different sorts due to the squishy nature of the foam and the amount of noodle you remove with the size of the bite.


This allowed us to begin using containers of all sorts. We even 3D printed a few seedling holders from Hoocho to test out, but even at a dime each for the 3D printed ones, the time it took and the unnecessary use of plastic wiped out the gains we were making by using collected recycled plastic containers. We collected more than 1,700 recycled plastic containers for usage.


We eventually began to experiment with germination designs. The teens came up with a plan to use brad nails to connect together pool noodle slices and float them on a bed of water (seedlings don't need nutrients, only water). This was a brilliant idea because, too often, labels fade, and you forget which seeds are which. With this method, as you add a seedling to a pool noodle slice, you connect that slice to the island of like seeds. So, there might be 15 basil seeds connected by brads floating together in the same container as 10 sage seeds, which are all connected to each other. As long as you add your seedlings to the right island, you'll always know which are which. This was very impressive and completely student-led.


Students also looked at larger-scale hydroponics. We wanted to determine how many nutrients plants like tomatoes and cucumbers would need for this set-it-and-forget-it method. We mounted 3-gallon buckets on the top of the Farm’s fence line, filled them with nutrients, and put tomato and cucumber plants in them using a hole saw and a pool noodle to secure them into the lid. We then draped them down over the fence to create an edible fence.


None died, but the one on the east fence was stunted, never growing more than 5" in the 3 months it was being studied. We concluded that the bucket's east-facing orientation meant it received the sun's unshielded heat, the nutrients got too hot, and though it never died, it never really grew either.


The buckets on the south fence thrived. It turns out that cucumbers consume much more water than tomatoes because when the cucumber buckets were officially empty, ~8 weeks into being planted, the tomatoes still had 1/3 water left. 


We yielded at least a cucumber from each plant, but they grew profusely with vegetation that was longer on the fence than 8'. The tomatoes grew less profusely, but each of them on the South wall did fruit and produce tomatoes, though they were only able to produce the first batch of tomatoes, and then they were out of water.


We theorized that a 5-gallon bucket that was insulated on all sides would be very close to sufficient to get you through the season and that once the bucket dropped to 1/3 full in the 5-gallon bucket, it would be reasonable to fill it back to halfway and likely not suffocate the air roots.


Summer activities were realistic and cost-efficient, with the idea that as their skill increased, so did the style of hydroponics we practiced.  Students planted around 500 plants, donated 100 to the community, and brought about 150 to maturity during the summer of 2023. Students were going to learn the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT); that's when the pumps, the batteries, and solar really would have started to play a role in the hydroponics demonstration.


Purchased materials included bakers’ racks, folding tables, peat starters, hydroponic nutrients, growing media (perlite and vermiculite), batteries, solar panels, drip emitters, timers, insulation/foam, axes, drill bits, hammers, conduit, and PVC tubing.


Learning Outcomes

17 Youth reporting change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.