A community garden at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg is becoming a model and a city-suburban crossroad this growing season for regional environmental sustainability.
Entering its second year, the garden near McConnor Parkway and Roosevelt Boulevard is a laboratory of sorts where city meets suburbs and old becomes new.
It's a place where waste from Roosevelt's Chicago Campus dining center is being used to fertilize soil, yielding vegetables for meals that will be served this fall in the university's Schaumburg dining center.
The half-acre Urban Pioneers Community Garden also is a prime example of the kind of green initiatives the university favors to help conserve the planet's dwindling natural resources.
Roosevelt officials estimate last year's produce yield at approximately 2,000 pounds. They predict the coming harvest will produce twice that amount since the garden has grown from 10 to 30 plots and is being maintained by growing numbers of students, faculty members, administrators, alumni, children at the campus' Bright Horizons Early Childhood Education Center and chefs at the campus' Snack Café.
"As an institution we're saying that it's not OK anymore to simply consume resources," said Paul Matthews, assistant vice president for campus planning and operations at Roosevelt, and the person in charge of green initiatives. "We've got to rebuild and reuse everything we can."
Uniting Roosevelt's urban and suburban campuses, the sustainability initiative starts at the McCormick Dining Center in Roosevelt's new 32-story Wabash Building in Chicago, where students drop trays of leftover food, biodegradable packaging and soy utensils outside the dining-center kitchen.
The waste is ground by a powerful pulpier and piped to the loading dock where water is hydro-extracted, further reducing volume. The mixture then is picked up and trucked to a Chicago South Side location for six weeks of decomposition.
Since August 2012, more than 30 cubic yards of Roosevelt's Chicago Campus waste have been processed into organic, nutrient-rich compost, including 15 cubic yards spread in April at the university's Schaumburg Campus.
Much of the material has been spread with 40 pounds of native prairie seed mix donated by Fermilab in Batavia, which is seeking to promote growth of native vegetation in nonprofit and educational settings. A smaller portion went to the community garden.
It's a bit of an unusual project, according to Ken Dunn, president of the Resource Center and a guru of recycling and urban gardening.
Some of the compost Dunn processes is spread on vacant Chicago farm lots where prime produce is grown then sold to high-end Chicago restaurants. He also sells compost to individual farmers and gardeners throughout the region and even out of state.
However, it is the first time that an institution is taking the material beyond city limits to close a sustainability loop in the suburbs -- an action furthering sustainability of the metropolitan region as a whole.
"Any reflective person knows that we've got to be smarter with resources than we have been in the past," Dunn said recently while picking up waste at Roosevelt's Chicago loading dock. "It's great to work with a university that understands the importance of the concept for the city as well as the suburbs."
The project contributed to Roosevelt's recently winning a 2013 Emerald Award from the Illinois Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The award recognizes Roosevelt for its holistic approach to sustainability, which engages both city and suburban campuses.
"What we've been doing with sustainability, both on campus and in the classroom, is a breath of fresh air," said Michael Bryson, associate professor of humanities and director of Roosevelt's sustainability studies program, which has grown to 60 undergraduate majors in three years.
The university received an inaugural Conservation@Work Award from The Conservation Foundation in Naperville last fall for its sustainable landscape in Schaumburg. Named a Tree Campus USA member by the National Arbor Day Foundation, the campus was recognized for tree planting and nurturing of healthy trees in March.
It wasn't easy at first starting the community garden at the northeast corner of the suburban campus.
"We grew a lot of tomatoes, zucchini and other vegetables," said Greg Ingles, manager of the university's Snack Café in Schaumburg. "We had some good harvests but what I came to realize is that the ground wasn't as suitable as it could be for gardening."
Kenton Franklin, a Buffalo Grove resident and one of Roosevelt's first sustainability studies graduates, remembers gardeners being frustrated by dry weather and hard soil.
"I tried to keep things organized and to steer our efforts away from being a mass of random things," said Franklin, who recently won the university's first Outstanding Student Achievement Award in Sustainability Studies.
"What I learned from the experiment is that it can be successful because the people we have are able to work together," he said.
There also will be a secret weapon: rich compost that many gardeners spread on April 20 and turned into the soil on April 27.
State Rep. Michelle Mussman of Schaumburg was at the April 20 soil-service-day event.
"It's great to see composting being done on such a large scale," she said. "Congratulations on becoming a model for our area."
Bartlett resident Mary Beth Radeck, a Roosevelt sustainability studies major and community garden coordinator, added: "Our hope is to grow enough produce to sustain our gardeners, their families and to be able to export some of what's grown to the community."
Veteran community gardener Shaun Keating, whose plot yielded 860 pounds last year, hopes recent rototilling of the soil and application of compost will increase the take to 1,000 pounds this season. That would enable the College of Pharmacy administrator to donate more produce to the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry near his home in Naperville.
Maris Cooke, a Streamwood resident and visiting lecturer in natural sciences, also hopes for a fruitful season. She is designating one of her two plots this season to feed the needy at the Hanover Township food pantry.
The Schaumburg dining center also has two plots, being planted in May, so the chief harvest of tomatoes, squash, zucchini, bell peppers, cucumbers and green beans corresponds with the return of students for the fall semester.
"It's neat being the one who gets to close the sustainability loop, and I look forward to feeding all involved," Ingles said.