Some middle school students in New York are learning about hydroponic farming thanks to a unusual after-school program.
The Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn is part of the ExpandED Schools network and began offering the program last year. It’s run by Teens for Food Justice, a nonprofit that works in Title I schools to train students to become urban farmers.
Through the program, students spend either Monday or Wednesday afternoon from 3:45 to 5:40 learning about various aspects of hydroponic farming along with lessons on food insecurity, the effects of poor nutrition, and why some families need government assistance to get the food they need. This goes on for 15-16 weeks. During this time, the core curriculum stays the same each semester, but the concentrations change.
Each class takes about 14 students.
Katherine Soll is the CEO and director of Teens for Food Justice. She said the program is designed to give students confidence that they can take a leadership role and implement positive social change.
“We really want our students to become much more keenly aware of what they consume and their ability to make healthier choices,” said Soll. “If those choices are not there for them that they’re going to find a way to make them available.”
The hope is that those lessons will have an impact on the students’ families. During community events, parents see their children cooking and consuming healthy meals. The parents are encouraged to bring produce and recipes home. They also receive information about where they can purchase similar items in their community.
The students work in a 500-square-foot hydroponic farm they built and maintain themselves. The farm provides about 100 pounds of produce each month, including all kinds of greens, as well as tomatoes, squash, peppers, lettuce, herbs, and cucumbers.
Some of that produce makes its way to the school cafeteria. Some of it is sold at farmers’ markets with the proceeds going back into the program, and some is distributed free at PTA meetings and community events.
In addition to the after-school program, three days a week a class on scientific inquiry is held on the farm using it as a living laboratory. About 14 students create their science projects based on what they learn from the farm.
A Typical Day
When students arrive after school, they start with a lesson in nutrition in the form of a healthy snack.
“We don’t feel that the snack that is provided by the [city] department of education through the after-school snack program is a great snack for the students,” said Soll. “We’re trying to model for them—through actually consuming food on an ongoing basis—better choices in what they might choose for snack.”
So students in the program have salads, yogurt, and hummus along with Swiss chard wraps made from chard that’s grown in the farm.
Then they begin a lesson. A typical early-semester lesson is on the pH scale.
“Our systems being hydroponic don’t use soil,” said Soll. “They use water. We add a nutrient mix to the water so that the plants receive the nutrition that they need to grow. The students learn about that process.”
The learning has a real hands-on component. The students test the pH levels of different solutions, then they chart the ideal pH balance for a plant and mix nutrient solution that is actually used to grow plants on the farm.
Later on in the semester, they might have a lesson on how companies use advertising to encourage children to eat sugary snacks.
The farm program is co-led by a Citizens School teaching fellow with a member of Teens for Food Justice. The Urban Assembly Unison School partners with Citzens School to provide an expanded school day. Teens for Food Justice also utilizes three volunteer mentors. These mentors are typically college students or those taking a gap year between undergraduate school and graduate school. They receive a small stipend and commit to put in three hours twice a week. The program also has a hydroponics manager and a farm site manager on staff.
The nonprofit is supported primarily by private, individual donors, with corporate donors, institutional donors, and government funding making up the rest.
Teens for Food Justice plans to open two new high school sites in the fall and add a courtyard greenhouse at Urban Assembly Unison School, which will provide produce for four local schools.
Photo: A student at the Urban Assembly Unison School serves himself a healthy snack. (Alexis Holloway)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.