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Clinton Hill Middle Schoolers Grow Fresh Produce to Feed the Community

By Alexandra Leon | January 11, 2016 7:22am
 Sixth-grader Abdurraheem Ali Jr., 12, helps build one of the hydroponic systems where the produce will grow.
Sixth-grader Abdurraheem Ali Jr., 12, helps build one of the hydroponic systems where the produce will grow.
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DNAinfo/Alexandra Leon

CLINTON HILL — Neighborhood middle schoolers are planting the seeds for healthy eating in their community.

A group of 15 student volunteers at Urban Assembly Unison School has converted a third-floor science lab into a hydroponic classroom garden where they’ll grow hundreds of leafy greens, fruits and vegetables.

The middle school students are growing the food as part of the Teens for Food Justice program, a project of the nonprofit Students for Service, which ran last year at Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School.

“Our goal is for this to be a farm that has the capability of really giving people access to produce they can cook with,” said Katherine Soll, director and CEO for the organization.

 A group of student volunteers is growing food in a hydroponic classroom garden to help bring fresh produce to their community.
Teens for Food Justice
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The program is entirely hands-on and covers a range of disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and economics.

“I like that we actually get to plant the seeds by ourselves,” seventh-grader Tamia Lemons, 12, said. “And it’s something I can use for my resume.”

The students started last week by building the hydroponic systems. They’ve measured the pH balance of their nutrient solutions and planted the seeds. Once the plants begin to grow they’ll harvest the produce. In the process, they’ll craft a cookbook with healthy recipes they’ve learned to make with the food they’ve grown.

The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders meet three times a week after school to maintain the garden under the leadership of teaching fellows and Teens For Food Justice mentors.

“They treat us like their family,” sixth-grader Abdurraheem Ali Jr., 12, said. “They take their time with us.”

The garden will produce roughly 480 leafy greens and herbs, like lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, chives, oregano and thyme, as well as peppers, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes. Once it’s at full capacity, the garden will be capable of growing 50 pounds of fresh produce a month.

Eighth-grader Thomas Hill, 13, said his favorite part of the program was the food he’d be learning to make, like all the different pastas he could cook with the herbs they’re growing.

Eventually, the students will host community outreach sessions one Saturday each month. The sessions will include activities such as cooking healthy meals with the produce they’ve grown alongside a chef. There, they’ll hand out free produce to students and their families, and raffle off bags of produce to community members.

Part of the program also involves a research project in which they compare the price of fresh produce in their community to those in other neighborhoods. 

The most impressive part of the program, according to Assistant Principal Amy Piller, has been seeing how word about the garden has spread through the school, where 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“The other kids heard there was a farm and asked, ‘Are there going to be cows?’” she said.

According to Piller, the students in the program are excited to bring nutritious food to their families and share their knowledge with their peers.

“It’s rare at middle schools that you can build something real,” Piller said.