Tech startups and pundits alike are considering the many places (anywhere, really) in which indoor agriculture can become a reality. But an organization in the Bronx, NYC provides the most obvious clue as to where this type of farming can make its biggest impact.
Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ) is a nonprofit dedicated to training youths on hydroponic farming techniques, health and nutrition education, and entrepreneurship skills. In real life, that translates to working with schools in NYC to build and maintain indoor hydroponic farms that provide fresh produce to school cafeterias on a daily basis.
By TFFJ’s estimates, their farms yield around 22,000 pounds of fresh produce annually at each location, including bok choy, herbs and lettuces, hot peppers, and cucumbers. At some locations, the yield is even greater. Thanks to a donation from Green Mountain Energy Sun Club, DeWitt Clinton high school produces over 25,000 pounds of produce per year. The 1,300 square-foot indoor farm lives in a former chemistry lab in the high school, and feeds not only the students but also the surrounding area — which happens to be one of the most food-insecure communities in NYC.
TFFJ grew out of Students for Service, a nonprofit created in 2009 to involve at-risk-area teens in community service projects. A focus on food justice and sustainability developed a few years later, in 2013, when the first TFFJ model raised over $90,000 to build its first hydroponic farm in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. A second farm launched in 2016, and TFFJ now operates in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn at Title 1 schools. These schools typically serve low-income areas, many of which are also food-insecure zones.
Roughly 42 million Americans, including 13 million children, are considered food insecure. Lucy Melcher, director of advocacy and government relations for Share Our Strength, last year described food insecurity as “a family that has enough money to buy groceries three out of four weeks; it’s a mom skipping dinner; it’s having to choose between buying groceries and paying rent.”
It’s also a vicious cycle. As anyone who’s ever skipped a meal knows, hunger throws both brain and body out of whack and can severely impact things like the ability to concentrate and even make sound decisions. In a school setting, that usually means lower academic performance, higher dropout rates, and lower-paying jobs as an adult — all of which can perpetuate the food insecurity cycle for any given individual.
TFFJ’s mission has the potential to halt that chain of events early on: in the classroom. You might say the organization is trying to build a new cycle, one that focuses heavily on getting hands-on with the food-growing process, education oneself, then taking those lessons to others in the communities:
It’s obviously quite a bit more complicated than an infographic can show, but getting indoor agriculture into more schools is definitely becoming a legitimate movement. Consider “Growing Brooklyn’s Future,” a $2 million initiative to create hydroponic classrooms in a dozen schools across Brooklyn neighborhoods Brownsville, Bushwick and East New York. Or Princeton University’s Vertical Farming Project, which this past May announced a partnership with Hopewell Elementary school in Hopewell, NJ, to develop a vertical farm-to-cafeteria program.
Right now, however, most of these programs rely on donations and grants, and literal and figurative growth will depend on much more funding in future. This is where indoor agriculture companies could really step in. There are plenty of high-tech farming startups out there, all hoping to play a role in the $27 billion indoor agriculture market. But as I wrote last week, these companies have an opportunity to expand their reach from the farmer’s market and the upscale grocery store to areas in greater need of both fresh food and better nutritional education.
One other advantage of schools: if indoor agriculture is going to be the force many hope it becomes, the world will need more people who actually know how to grow the food using hydroponics and other indoor farming techniques. Bringing these programs into schools is effectively training an entire generation on skills that will soon be critical for us all.