Gardens thrive several stories above Chicago’s streets at McCormick Place. (Courtesy Savor)

With conventions on hold, bounty feeds Chicago’s needy

Amid the pall of the coronavirus pandemic sits a rooftop Chicago oasis that’s being used to help the less fortunate. The garden atop McCormick Place, North America’s largest convention center, has gone from feeding event guests to providing healthy food and generating funds for vulnerable members of the Windy City area’s population.

Concessionaire Savor, which runs the garden, and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the convention center’s owner, decided in the spring to go ahead with planting of the garden despite the standstill in conventions and trade shows brought by the pandemic.

The garden has expanded since it was first planted five years ago. (Courtesy Savor)

The produce, including honey from rooftop hives, has made its way to the South Loop Farmers’ Market, with proceeds going to Windy City Harvest urban agriculture education programs and unsold food being donated to Lawndale’s Hope House, a community-based reentry program. Windy City Harvest is part of the Chicago Botanical Garden and operates gardens around the city, some in formerly derelict locations. 

When first conceived, the one-acre garden, which has been in place for about five years, was part of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification of McCormick Place’s West Building, said Doug Bradley, Savor’s vice president of culinary.

“It originally started as a green roof,” Bradley said. “There was an irrigation system, but there wasn’t anything like what Savor put in.”

Plantings began with herbs, eggplant, squashes and peppers and grew to include heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, Bradley said.

About three years ago, the garden was expanded to the east side of the West Building’s roof above the structure’s sixth floor, creating two distinct microclimates, he said.

Each year, a team plans what will be grown. This year it was decided the garden would plow ahead with full plantings instead of scaling back or skipping the sowing of new seeds altogether.

The garden has served as a model for others, including one at New York’s Javits Center, Bradley said, noting that officials from that convention center came to Chicago to check out the growings on at McCormick

“It’s been a great process and certainly an opportunity to learn a lot,” he said. “It’s a tough time and you’ve got to figure programs like Windy City Harvest are part of the hope for cities. I think that’s part of what you have to look at when you are in an operation like McCormick Place.”