Students in a mostly Latino high school in Chicago improved their grades in science and the eating habits of an entire neighborhood with a program that began by installing greenhouses on the roofs of the school buildings and spread to one of the main parks in the city.
At first instructors were out to improve the teaching of science so that students would do better at university or in the career of their choice, but then the project flowered into an anti-obesity program.
Besides growing fruits and vegetables in greenhouses and in four community gardens, the students developed the "Muevete" (Active Living) program to get the neighbors exercising more.
"We wanted to improve students' grades and involve their parents in a campaign of healthy diet and exercise," Carlos de Jesus, assistant principal at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park, told Efe .
The surrounding neighborhood has a very high obesity index among its 63,000 inhabitants, mostly Latinos of Puerto Rican or Mexican origin.
De Jesus said discussions of the subject started six years ago when he was a science teacher and published studies on the scarcity of fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood, together with related statistics on obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
"Of the 10 grocery stores in our community, only one sold fresh produce. You had to go a long way to buy a tomato," he said.
It was hard to ask the community to eat healthy food and avoid high calories with low nutritional value if there were no alternatives at hand.
Students analyzed the problem for six weeks and then presented their suggestions. "The challenge was how to grow fruits and vegetables in the city, and they thought up some really good ideas," the teacher said.
Buying a vacant lot was out of the question because it cost too much money, so they got the idea of building greenhouses on the flat roofs of the school where they could grow crops all year long.
Getting the project off the ground took four years as they looked for the necessary funds and overcame resistance from the city government, which finally passed an ordinance authorizing greenhouses.
De Jesus, born in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, said that the Puerto Rican majority of students decided to begin by sowing the eight ingredients of "sofrito" - a mixture of lightly fried vegetables that is the basis of the island's cuisine.
So it was that in their 800-square-foot prototype greenhouse they grew over the past year some 300 kilos (650 pounds) of onions, green peppers, red peppers, sweet chili peppers, cilantro, culantro and oregano.
Also included were lettuce, tomato and cucumbers in a crop that has continued to grow and this year could reach 1,000 kilos (1 ton). In five years the school could have a greenhouse of 20,000 square feet.
The city parks department authorized the school to use 1 acre of Humboldt Park for experiments with apples, pears, oranges, lemons, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries and dates.
"The district is ready to provide more land if we show that the use of it is productive - and we're going to convince them enough so they'll give us 10 acres next year," De Jesus said.
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