by Courtney Llewellyn

CHICAGO – It can be difficult if not seemingly impossible to eat well while on the go, especially when faced with literal miles of fast food restaurants as you wander through an airport during a lengthy layover. O’Hare International Airport saw this and has stepped up to provide travelers – and the chefs who prepare their food – some green relief.

Built and first planted in 2011, the O’Hare Urban Garden is still thriving and still providing a number of restaurants through the sprawling Midwest hub with fresh produce daily. Ten percent of the garden’s materials contain recycled content, including structural steel and water-proofing membranes. Another 20 percent of its materials were obtained locally – more steel and its glass partitions.

It is touted as the world’s first vertical aeroponic food farm inside an airport terminal. Aeroponics is the process of growing plants using only water, air and nutrients. The O’Hare Urban Garden features 26 vertical Tower Garden growing systems, each containing 44 slots for growing plants allowing over 1,100 plants to be grown. No herbicides or pesticides are needed and it uses much less water and minerals than traditional gardening – some literature about the garden reports it uses 95 percent less water than what is normally required for conventional gardening.

Plants are started by seed in natural rock-based fiber cubes before being transplanted into the towers which make up a 928 square foot garden. The project is a collaboration between the Chicago Department of Aviation and HMSHost Corporation, which is part of Autogrill S.p.A., the world’s largest provider of food and beverage services for travelers. HMSHost is at more than 120 airports worldwide and more than 100 travel plaza stops in North America. Additionally, HMSHost has a team of internal executive chefs and celebrity chef and restaurateur partners that personally develop the menus for many of their restaurants.

The O’Hare Urban Garden grows Swiss chard, arugula, several types of basil, chives, cilantro, dill, edible flowers, mixed lettuces, hot peppers, sage, thyme and oregano. The ripened goods then go to Wolfgang Puck, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, Stefani’s Tuscany Café, Tortas Fronteras from chef Rick Bayless, Blackhawks and Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap.

“There is nothing fresher than picking it off the tower and putting it in the sandwiches and pasta and other items you will eat here,” said Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

Chef Bayless designed his “farm-to-terminal” menu at Tortas Fronteras to offer O’Hare travelers a choice of tortas (Mexican griddle-baked sandwiches) and mollettes (warm open-face sandwiches) in both Terminal 1 and Terminal 3. Bayless, an internationally acclaimed chef, TV personality, restaurateur/airport concessionaire and award-winning cook book author, is also as an innovator in sustainable restaurant practices.

“The implications of installing urban gardens are enormous. If urban gardens can create a sense of calm in a bustling, often brutal, airport environment just think of their healing potential in everyday urban life,” said Ellen Vincent, a Clemson University environmental landscape specialist who visited the garden during a seven-hour layover.

The ongoing success of the O’Hare Urban Garden does show promise for chefs and restaurants in city settings who wish to grow their own fresh greens and herbs.