Schools as Frontline Against Food Deserts

These greens are among the hydroponic crops grown by students at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School, in Brooklyn, N.Y. In June, the students started to sell discounted boxes of the fresh produce to community members. Robin Lloyd/for NPR

Thanks again to the Salt for more inspiring stories about communities cultivating more than just smart students.

How Hydroponic School Gardens Can Cultivate Food Justice, Year-Round

After a full day of school a few weeks ago, 12-year-old Rose Quigley donned gloves and quickly picked bunches of fresh lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, mint and oregano. But she didn’t have to leave her school in Brooklyn, N.Y., or even go outdoors to do it.

Quigley is one of dozens of students at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School who in the past year built a high-tech, high-yield farm inside a third-floor classroom. They decided what to grow, then planted seeds and harvested dozens of pounds of produce weekly.

The vegetables never stop coming because the crops are grown hydroponically — indoors, on floor-to-ceiling shelves that hold seedlings and plants sprouting from fiber plugs stuck in trays, each fed by nutrient-enriched water and lit by LED lamps. The students provide weekly produce for their cafeteria’s salad bar and other dishes.

Later that same day, for the first time, Quigley and several of her schoolmates also sold some of their harvest — at a discount from market rates — to community members. It’s part of a new weekly “food box” service set up in the school’s foyer. Each of 34 customers receive an allotment of fresh produce intended to feed two people for a week. Three students, paid as interns, used digital tablets to process orders, while peers handed out free samples of a pasta salad featuring produce from the farm.

In June, youths at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School, in Brooklyn, started to provide discounted boxes of fresh produce, grown in a student-built hydroponic farm in a classroom, to community members. Robin Lloyd/for NPR

Quigley’s passion for farming stems from Teens for Food Justice, a 6-year-old nonprofit organization that has worked with community partners to train students at Brownsville Collaborative and two other schools in low-income neighborhoods in New York City to become savvy urban farmers and consumers.

Quigley calls the farm experience fun. But she also credits it with teaching her the term “food desert,” improving her community’s health — and giving her the opportunity to discover her love of kale. “We could have been stuck eating chicken nuggets every day,” she says. Now, thanks to the onsite farm, students have daily access to salad greens, cooking greens, and other fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers.

Her principal, Gregory Jackson, Jr., in announcing the food box service at a news conference, said that he recently counted more than 20 fast-food restaurants within a few hundred yards of the school. A typical student might eat three fast-food meals daily, he said.

“That’s why I have so many students now who are pre-diabetic already. If you don’t have any healthy food options, then how can you blame them?” he added.

The pattern repeats in communities nationwide: Grocery stores move to wealthier areas and corner fruit stands close under competition with big box grocery stores. As Mary Rogers, a horticultural science researcher at the University of Minnesota, puts it, “Food goes where the money is.”

Programs such as the hydroponic farm and food box service at Brownsville aim to help close that healthy food gap. Of course, urban community farms, including those at schools, cannot single-handedly fix the nation’s food system — a system characterized by diets that are low in fruits and vegetables and high in sugar and other simple carbs. A shortage of healthy, affordable, accessible and reliable food options particularly affects urban residents who live below or close to the federal poverty line. And decades of discriminatory pay rates, banking practices and real-estate policies, among other factors, have prevented many black and Latino Americans from accumulating wealth, which fuels a correlation between race and income — and thus, food injustice.

But local networks of small urban farms, grassroots community organizations and partnerships with nonprofits and for-profit businesses nationwide are growing stronger. That’s changing how people in underserved neighborhoods think about their food choices and consolidating their voices and power as they demand better.

Progress surrounding urban food justice has been incremental. “This hasn’t been an overnight sensation,” says Dr. K. Torian Easterling, an assistant commissioner at the New York City Department of Health. Easterling serves on a food advisory council that works on food and nutrition-related issues in Brownsville and East New York, another community in Brooklyn. “There’s been a lot of organizing and community building that’s been happening. In particular, a lot of the community garden farmers and urban agriculturists have been doing a lot of great work,” he says.

Read the entire article here.

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