A Look at Chicago's Airport Urban Garden

O'Hare's Urban Garden | Photo: reallowvibe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Throughout my time writing here, I've occasionally taken slight jabs in the direction of my home city of Chicago, specifically when it comes to the residents' love of foods that are, let's say, not exactly the most health-conscious.

Deep dish pizzas and hot dogs are the two stereotypical foods associated with the city for a reason: A whole lot of people eat them there. Or, at least, that was the case when I lived there last, a little over eight years ago. In between, a whole lot has changed. There have been two presidential elections, two popes, the Red Sox and White Sox have both lifted their various baseball-centric curses by winning championships, and Lindsay Lohan has been arrested ... well, a lot. But something else has changed in Chicago as well: They care a lot more now about where their food comes from.

Take this amazing project that's making its way around the blogosphere as of late: The urban garden inside of Chicago's O'Hare airport.

The 928-square-foot garden, first opened last September, consists of 26 aeroponic towers that grow a variety of herbs and vegetables. The list of produce growing in the towers includes, but is not limited to, chard, basil, lettuce, edible flowers, bell peppers, and tomatoes. And just who is using these vegetables? Currently, three restaurants in the airport proper make regular treks to the garden to harvest produce for their dishes: Wolfgang Puck, Rick Bayless's Tortas Fontera Grill, and the highly-acclaimed Wicker Park Sushi Bar.

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"You get the kind of farm-to-table experience, if you would," says Karen Pride, media relations director at O'Hare. "Fresher is better, and you can certainly tell the difference between fresh herbs, fresh lettuce, fresh peppers, and fresher ingredients than if they're not."

The produce is also used for a makeshift "farmers' market," located one level below the urban garden. There, weary travelers can buy packets of herbs, lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies that are grown mere feet from where they're being sold. (Other items not grown in the airport, such as fruits, are sold alongside the herbs and veggies.) Which means that people flowing through Chicago's biggest airport no longer have to rely on quick, easy, greasy and fattening meals during layovers. Now, they can chow down on more than just hot dogs and beer.

The garden also offers travelers a place to calm down after a long, stressful day of making connections and being sandwiched between annoying kids and chatty grandmas. "You can sit up, there take a nap, read a book, get food," says Pride. "It's a nice get-away if you have some time between flights, or if you're an employee and have your lunch break."

The garden is actually just one aspect of O'Hare's subtle shift from being strictly an airport to becoming a full-blown urban farm. For the past few years, the airport has also been home to a handful of honeybees being tended to by urban beekeepers. The honey is harvested, the wax is used to make candles and lip balm, and the products are sold throughout the airport, including inside the aforementioned farmers' market.

Our biggest question: When is LAX going to get any of this?

While the advances that the airport has recently made are certainly steps in the right direction, adding a few health-conscious restaurants is a long way away from creating a fully-functional urban garden. I asked the folks over at HMS Host -- the food and beverage development giant who handle most of the country's airports, including LAX, and were responsible for O'Hare's urban garden -- if there were any plans to create one of these installations inside of LAX. Their to-the-point response:

Sad news. Who would've thought we'd be looking towards the city of sausages and mustaches as airport cuisine trend-setters instead of setting these trends ourselves?

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