A few seasons back, in an effort to prolong his NHL career, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews started focusing more intently on his health, particularly what he was putting into his body, and soon he was reading about conventional food systems and the environmental toll they exact. “I started connecting the dots,” he says, his chiseled face suddenly displaying an unblinking, hawk-eyed intensity. “I looked at how our food is raised and processed, and started to think about the climate and our ecosystem that humans have kind of obliterated.”

Toews decided to elevate his awakening from the personal level to the collective. In 2018, he established a partnership between his new Jonathan Toews Foundation and the New York City–based nonprofit Green Bronx Machine, which runs gardening and healthy eating programs in public schools. The mission: to create a new generation of environmental stewards from the ground up. Well, not from the ground, exactly. The program teaches students at 40 Chicago public schools how to grow vegetables using an aeroponic tower garden. Kids also prepare meals using their harvest and take part in a nine-week curriculum of enhanced in-class instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“When the students watch the progress and they show up to class and this thing is just blooming, and they’re getting to try salads and herbs and throw it all into a big bowl, you feel their excitement and pride right away,” says Toews, who has visited a handful of the participating schools, most of which are underresourced. At early adopter John Spry Community School in Little Village, one middle-school-age boy told Toews that he didn’t know what kale was until starting the program.

“My students go through a lot in their lives,” says Spry teacher Alicia Song. “There’s trauma. Some violence. And good food is not necessarily the focus, because there are other things more pressing than having the best organic vegetables on their plates. So Jonathan’s message resonates with a lot of educators: Healthy students are at the heart of healthy schools, and healthy schools are at the heart of resilient communities. We need programs like this, especially in lower-income communities.”

Toews says he’s never been crazy about his nickname, Captain Serious, bestowed on him because of his stoic demeanor. He may not have to live with that moniker much longer. A new one has recently been thrown out there: Captain Planet.