You are what you eat, runs the old saw. But if you’ve followed a century or so of sociology and urban planning, the more salient fact might be that you are where you eat. Our sense of identity, it turns out, is inextricably linked to our sense of place.

If this is so, then the modern elementary school should give us pause. Though school architecture has improved somewhat in recent decades, the model remains a concrete fortress with paltry green space, regimented by bells and policed by adults.

One inner-city Chicago charter school is setting out to change this dreary picture, however. The Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), which graduated its first 8th grade class this year, has launched a new building initiative that will re-invent what elementary school looks like. Instead of classrooms, students will learn in flexible “neighborhoods” designed to answer children’s natural curiosity and where they’ll rub shoulders with peers of all ages.


The new school, designed in collaboration with the architecture firm run by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, will also serve as a model for sustainable building. It will be surrounded by three acres of organic gardens, which along with several greenhouses, will supply the cafeteria and provide hands-on learning for students.

The buildings will be powered by solar array and heated with geothermal systems, with additional sustainable practices enlisted in the goal of creating a “net positive” campus, meaning that it will actually supply power to the grid. All of these innovations are in service of the school’s mission to develop “mindful leaders who take action both now and in the future to positively impact their communities and the world beyond.”

While the school currently occupies a pair of buildings on a busy intersection, food and sustainability are already integral to its curriculum and its operations. Its “edible schoolyard” features a greenhouse, 40 raised garden beds, and a chicken coop, and school lunches are 100 percent organic. The institution received one of the first gold medals from the HealthierUS Schools Challenge, and serves as a model not only for Chicago public schools, but for schools everywhere.

Students at the Academy of Global Citizenship in Chicago sit down for a "Meatless Monday" lunch, Monday, May 13, 2013. | Photo by J.Geil

Students at the Academy of Global Citizenship in Chicago sit down for a “Meatless Monday” lunch, Monday, May 13, 2013. | Photo by J.Geil

That’s intentional, according to the school’s founder, Sarah Elizabeth Ippel. “We see this campus as a model for how we can address multiple needs that exist in our underserved communities through one solution,” she explains.

That solution, as it turns out, includes not only where and what you eat, but how your food is grown, prepared, served, and the learning that goes along with these activities.

“Sustainability is a complete philosophy,” says Ippel, “not just in terms of teaching and learning, but also in terms of practical operation. Sustainability guides our decisions, is central to our mission, is part of how we think.”