CHICAGO — During the recent annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago, I toured the convention center’s rooftop garden and got a first-hand look at an extensive urban sustainability effort. That’s right, not only does the top of McCormick Place provide an incredible view of Chicago’s skyline, it also features the largest rooftop garden in the Midwest.

In June 2013, the Chicago Botanic Garden transitioned what was already a green roof into an urban farm site by planting 20,000 square feet of vegetables and herbs. With a late start to the growing season, the Windy City Harvest Program, the name bestowed to the garden, produced about 4,000 lbs of fresh produce its first year. This year that figure is expected to jump to 10,000 pounds, with Savor Chicago, the foodservice provider for McCormick Place, serving it via its catering and restaurant operations, reducing the need to transport produce to their operations.

The food has a short distance to travel, from the roof to Savor’s kitchens. This is where the culinary professionals decide what to serve that afternoon or evening at McCormick Place’s several Green Seal-certified restaurants. Certification means the restaurants meet the requirements to reduce waste through composting and recycling as well as reducing water and energy use.

As of mid-May, 200 lbs of spring garlic already had been harvested. Other herbs growing in the garden include basil, dill, rosemary and thyme. There are also about 2,000 tomato and 1,500 pepper plants. In all, there are more than 50 varieties of plants growing in the garden, many of which started from seed in the grow rooms adjacent to the outdoor garden.

There’s other life in the gardens, too. There are two hives that are home to honey bees from Tennessee, with each hive yielding about 50 lbs of honey annually. There are also earthworms that help aerate the soil and assist with composting.

Atop Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center is an urban garden where an expected 10,000 pounds of produce will be harvested this summer. Only a portion will be used by Savor Chicago, the food service provider for McCormick Place. The rest is donated to area food banks.

Savor Chicago is serious about being as green. The company worked with EcoLogic Solutions Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y., to install its Green Seal GS-53-certified SANeWater sanitizer/disinfectant. The instrument uses electro chemical activation technology to electrolyze tap water and salt to create a hypochlorous acid solution for sanitizing and disinfecting. This solution is more than 99% water and is non-toxic to humans and aquatic life yet effective in killing bacteria and viruses, according to independent testing. The solution may be used to clean food contact surfaces, beverage and water distribution lines, and more. It also functions as an all-purpose deodorizer.

The device also creates a sodium hydroxide solution for use as an all-purpose mild detergent. It may be used in automated dish-washing machines, as a produce wash, in clean-in-place systems and even to clean heavy equipment such as delivery trucks.  

In addition to Savor Chicago, EcoLogic Solutions’ technology is used by Whole Foods Market, Amtrak and others.

McCormick Place is not the only large-scale farm-to-fork growing going on in Chicago. In the rotunda building between terminals two and three at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, there are 26 Aeroponic Tower Gardens designed and installed by Future Growing L.L.C., Apopka, Fla. The vegetables and herbs harvested from the vertically oriented, indoor garden are served at a number of independent fast-casual and full-service airport restaurants. Crops include green beans, lettuce, peppers and an array of herbs.

More than 50 varieties of plants are grown on the rooftop garden of McCormick Place. Many of the plants start from seeds in the grow rooms adjacent to the outdoor garden. Employees do their own composting and use green technology to produce their own produce wash and cleaning detergents.

Here’s how the vertical gardens work. Seeds are first germinated in small cubes of nutrient-rich volcanic rock, placed in full light for a week or two, where they may develop into hardy seedlings ready to transplant into the Tower Garden. The base of the tower has a 25-gallon reservoir that stores an ionic mineral nutrient solution, which gets pumped through the center of each pot all the way to the top of the tower. From there, the nutrient solution drips through a device that evenly cascades the solution over the plant roots. On the journey down the tower, the nutrient solution feeds the plants’ roots and becomes highly oxygenated as gravity tumbles it back down to the reservoir. This process is continually repeated, providing fresh oxygen, water and nutrients to the roots of the plants. The proprietary design allows the crops to grow faster than they would in soil, and thus they yield more. Such vertical gardens are popping up from coast-to-coast, indoors and outside, at restaurants, schools and even supermarkets.

As the food service industry becomes more focused on sustainable practices, local farming practices, from rooftop gardens to indoor vertical gardens, will grow in number. Operators may differentiate themselves by promoting their locally grown produce while improving their carbon footprint.