Urban Tween Farming Is the Wave of the Future

Borough President Adams, handing out checks for hydroponic greenhouses.

Last week, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams stood next to Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna in a classroom at the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick. Flanking Adams, school representatives from Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, and Bed-Stuy were showing off oversized checks written by Adams’ office.

“We are allocating $167,000 to twelve schools to build out hydroponic greenhouse classrooms,” Adams announced, standing behind a podium, to an audience of science teachers, principals, and representatives of the New York-based nonprofit Sun Works. “They will be educating young people about the real possibility of urban farming as a skill to develop… this is not Arkansas, this is Brooklyn.”

In 2010, the non profit Sun Works began its Greenhouse Project, and has since installed hydroponic and aquaponic plant and food growing greenhouse systems into classrooms and on rooftops of 25 schools across the city. Their partnership with Borough Hall, “Growing Brooklyn’s Future,” targets Brooklyn neighborhoods that have been underserved, with the intention, as described by Deputy President Reyna, that student skill sets would align with future industry needs—in this case, green technology and urban farming. “No education is worthwhile if we’re not staying in touch with industry,” says Reyna. “The schools will be college ready because they’ve been exposed to what industry is looking for.”

Sun Works began in 2007 as a floating barge on the Hudson River that maintained an urban farm. It produced high yields of food, was powered completely by wind and solar energy, got its heat from vegetable oil, and its irrigation system flowed with rainwater. Two parents, Sidsel Robards and Manuela Zamora, were fans of the barge, and, at the time, had children at PS 333 on the Upper West Side. They implemented the pilot Greenhouse project at their children’s school in the fall of 2010. As the students got to know the greenhouse, they were also considering topics that grade-schoolers usually don’t: sustainability, space, water, land, and resource management, conservation, ecology, and food justice.

The hands-on work covers core science requirements, with the added benefit that managing hydroponic and aquaponic food growing systems happens to be way more interesting to students than reading about the same concepts in books. Sun Work’s largest lab to date—a 1,500-square-foot rooftop greenhouse at PS 84 in Williamsburg—was just completed. And the non profit has set an ambitious goal: to have 100 Greenhouse labs up and running city wide by 2020.

Talking at the Academy of Urban Planning last week, Sun Works Co-Director Manuela Zamora said, “It will have a big impact on schools who participate. Not only standards, but also growing food with hydroponic technology, and learning about water resource management, conservation, and nutrition.”

Of course, where there are lofty goals, not only money but a little blind faith must follow. Deputy President Reyna says she has been in government long enough to hear ‘no’ as a standard response to many non-standard ideas. In Bushwick last week, not masking her surprise, Reyna thanked the New York City School Construction Authority, which will be in charge of overseeing the build-out of the greenhouses in all twelve Brooklyn schools.

“Our schools have not seen this type of investment in a long time,” said Reyna. “We have to challenge our schools, it’s too easy to depend on the system to show us the way—we want people to show each other the way. We’re not waiting for anyone to give us an invitation.”

Behind the podium, Adams pointed out the neighborhoods targeted for the greenhouse project. “You can look at the schools, look at the locations, and you’ll get a signal of what we’re saying,” Adams explained. “We state that our children are as good as—if not better than—children across the globe. People didn’t believe you deserved this. The deputy and I said, ‘You’re darn right you deserve this, and we’re going to give you everything we have to give it to you.’”

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