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A Hydroponic Farm Grows in Brooklyn

Deb Levy

Deb Levy is the Director of Marketing & Communications at ExpandED Schools.

Sixth grader Xavier acts as a "bee," using an electric toothbrush to pollinate the plants.

Student bumblebees. A pet tilapia named Maybelline. A classroom farm that produces 100 pounds of produce each month. These are just a few of the things you’ll find on any given day at The Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn.

Urban Assembly is part of the ExpandED Schools network and partners with Citizen Schools to offer an expanded learning day to its nearly 200 middle school students. The longer school day runs until 5:40pm and offers students opportunities to explore things like drama, photography and yes, hydroponic farming. These classes are led by community educators who collaborate with classroom teachers to build upon the lessons learned in core subjects. 

And while students at Urban Assembly get to choose from a variety of classes, the farm is a perennial favorite. Run by the non-profit Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ), the class meets once a week for two hours and students learn the intricacies of urban agriculture, hydroponic farming, nutrition, food access and the implications of food deserts.

Kathy Soll, CEO/Director of TFFJ, says, “Our goal is to empower people to improve their health by thinking about food differently.”

The farm certainly gets one to think differently about the classroom. Walking through the door is like entering a rainforest with the sound of running water and lush greens growing up and out from every surface. Floor-to-ceiling leafy and vine systems line the perimeter of the room, sprouting tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, peppers, herbs, squash and lettuces and greens of all kinds.

Class begins with healthy snacks, encouraging students to try new foods.

The farm does not allow for passive participation. Students are ambassadors, gardeners, chefs, tasters … even pollinators. “It’s like I’m a bee,” said Xavier, a 6th grader wielding an electric toothbrush and rubbing the leaves of a vine. “I’m giving the nutrients. If you look closely, you can see the dust coming out.” He admitted to having to be careful because he’s allergic to pollen.

Harrison Hillier is the Hydroponics Manager and one of the many educators in the classroom. He designs, builds (with student help) and maintains the TFFJ hydroponic systems, and described the classroom farm as a small ecosystem, with Maybelline the tilapia at the core of the operation. The fish lives in nutrient solution and water beneath the indoor greenhouse. “Maybelline is part of an aquaponics system,” he explained, “which means her poop gets dissolved into the water, processed by microbes and then used as fertilizer to grow the plants. It’s one long recirculating system, a closed loop.”

The class begins with a healthy snack like turkey on whole-wheat bread with sliced tomato and lettuce. Kids then get an opportunity to try a new food with the only rule being: try it, even if you think you’ll hate it.

Upon tasting a guava for the first time, Xavier said, “It’s sour. I liked it.” Another student noted a grapefruit-flavored aftertaste. The rating? Five students gave the thumbs up; no haters.

Zahid, a 7th grader, never liked hummus until he made it himself in class. “It was a little spicier and had some lime in it. I also tried quinoa and avocadoes. I never had avocadoes before. They are tasty!”

According to Kathy Soll, “We see a big impact where kids are talking about what they would choose as a snack. They’re going from chips, cookies and soda to carrots, fruit and juice. Families are thinking about how they can change to a more plant-based diet.”

What’s next for the classroom farm? TFFJ and the students are planning to build a greenhouse in the school’s courtyard that will produce even more healthy food that can be shared with families and other schools in the community. And Maybelline may get a tankmate or two who will help fertilize additional plants.

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