Urban Hydrofarmers

Urban Hydrofarmers, Chestnut Hill, MA
Mike Barnett, Professor, Boston College

The Project:
Our work is more than just about food. Our mission is much larger and has 3 core purposes. First, we seek to create a socially-just food system that will give under-served youth access to critical knowledge about how food production and consumption can contribute to a fairer society. Second, we want to produce a knowledgeable citizenry regarding healthy food that will make wise choices about food consumption, reduce obesity rates, and extend the life span. Third, we are keen to create the next generation of scientists through learning the science of growing food using hydroponics and aquaponics.

In its essence, our work is about creating opportunities for young people from low-income communities to learn about growing food, learning science, becoming interested in learning more about healthy eating. We believe that much more than just a change in diet or school curriculum is required to change the food system. We believe a corresponding educational revolution around food is also needed. We want to engage youth to learn how to grow food and through the growing process support them in realizing how science is relevant to their life. To do this, youth need opportunities to learn about the joys and the science of growing food.

Our work began just over two years ago. It targets youth aged from upper-elementary school through high school and is designed to solve to two critical problems. The first problem is that most urban youth perceive school science as boring, irrelevant, and certainly not for them. The second problem is that most urban youth have little knowledge of where their food comes from and have little opportunity to learn how to grow their own food.

One of the many reasons for this situation is that the growing season for many low-income minority youth coincide with summer vacation, when many low-income youth need to work full time to help support their families. Thus, our approach has been to build a holistic program that integrates hydroponics into a variety of educational settings, including after-school environments, classrooms during school year, and a summer program for youth from urban schools.

We have been learning that once youth have the opportunity to grow healthy food, learn about how and why it grows, and then get to take their produce home and eat it with their families their interest in both eating healthy and learning more about science increases dramatically. We are thrilled to participate in this transformative experience and eager to share it with other youths, their teachers, and their families.

We have a number of partners working with us on our project:

Our primary partner is the STEM Garden Institute, who is working closely with our partner school districts and city leaders to expand the program.

The Salvation Army’s Kroc Center has 150 youth each year enrolled in its after-school programs in Boston and Chelsea. For the past two years we have been working with their staff to implement a hydroponic-based science program where youth grow their own food year-round. Students in the program either take this food home to their families or it is served as part of the Salvation Army’s “feed the hungry” program.

Groundwork Lawrence is working with 400 youth in their after-school programs, growing food and selling it at local farmers markets.

The College-Bound program at Boston College operates a year-long program where 60 high school youth from Boston Public Schools have been designing and building hydroponic systems. These youth learn to manage and operate a greenhouse equipped with both aquaponic and vertical hydroponic systems (that the youth built). The youth sell their produce at farmers’ markets and manage the profits to sustain their business.

Center for Urban Resilience and Sustainability (CURes) in Los Angeles has adopted our hydroponic program and is working with schools throughout the Los Angeles area where youth are growing food in their schoolyards using vertical towers. CURes is currently working with ten high schools and approximately 2000 high-school aged youth in some of the lowest income areas in Los Angeles.

One of our largest impacts is through our work with school districts. Our team has been working with teachers in schools across the nation and installing hydroponic systems in classrooms where youth can learn the science of growing food through hydroponics. To date we are working with 15 school districts and by the end of 2013 we will be working with 40 schools in low-income areas in the states of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and California. We currently are impacting 3000 youth and by May of 2014 we will be impacting approximately 10,000 youth with our hydroponic program. Having hydroponic systems in the back of classrooms starts important conversations about what is growing among the entire population of a school and also gets kids excited about learning how to do it for themselves.

During the past two years in our college-bound program we have had 40 high-school youth graduate. We have a 100% college attendance rate with over 65% of those youth choosing to major in a scientific field (the national average for youth of color is 6%). We are the only program in the nation to have had three of our youth receive the highly competitive and prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship during the past three years. This Gates Scholarship completely covers all college expenses for youth studying a scientific discipline.

We are currently negotiating to lease 5000 square foot greenhouse that will enable us to harvest up to 3000 plants per week. We are in the pilot phase with only 600 plants growing in the greenhouse with plans to increase around 6000. If all goes as planned one of our goals is to set up a (Community Supported Agriculture) CSA for the lowest income areas in the Boston area.

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