Friday, December 4th was a livelier day than usual in Room 300 at UA Unison School. TFFJ’s new team of young adult mentors gathered for the first time to meet the Unison School community and begin building the farm’s first system.
After a briefing on hydroponic farming techniques and a striking portrait of local food insecurity and its causes, the team met Amy Piller, UA Unison’s assistant principal and co-founder, and Brandi Epps, an AmeriCorps teaching fellow who is joining us as lead instructor of the TFFJ after-school program.
Anatomy of a Hydroponic System
Excitement and energy levels high, we ventured out to gather building materials from the supply closet down the hall, garnering curious looks from students and teachers alike as we marched back and forth carrying 10ft plastic channels, steel framework and boxes of tools. The system built on Friday is one of four systems specially designed for the Unison farm by David Sanderson, TFFJ’s hydroponics consultant. Called a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system, it will house 250 leafy green plants like kale, Swiss Chard and lettuce in just 20 sq. feet of space.
Ultimately, the farm will contain two of these structures, as well as two vine crop systems perfect for growing tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash. By February, the Unison student team will have built the remaining systems and will begin harvesting 50 – 80 lbs of produce monthly for their families, a substantial amount in a community where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is very limited.
As Melissa Giroux, Citizen School’s Unison campus director points out, “the current options in the neighborhood are either too expensive or marketed towards the gentrified parts of the neighborhood. Lots of students and their families feel uncomfortable going into the new, nicer grocery stores that cater to the wealthier families moving in. The corner stores that have been there longer and are cheaper are low quality and often carry poor quality produce.”
Meeting the New Teens for Food Justice
The day’s highlight came at lunch, when the Unison students who will become the new Teens for Food Justice in one month’s time, stopped in to meet their mentors and enjoy a healthy lunch. The students, ranging from sixth to eighth graders, were excited about the prospect of growing and learning about different crops. Abdur, a Sixth Grader, said he was “excited to see plants grow before my naked eyes.” and Thomas, Grade Eight, talked about how formerly being in the school’s STEM club made him especially interested in learning about the mechanics of farming indoors. Other students, such as sixth graders Amiah and Mohammed, had prior experience with community and home gardening, and were looking forward to learning about indoor farming processes.
With Dave Sanderson, CEO/Founder Kathy Soll and Co-Founder Chana Chenfeld on hand to facilitate we built a major portion of the system by day’s end. Feeling very accomplished, we were able to step back and see with our own naked eyes the progress we had made, and visualize the other installations yet to come. Construction and preparation will continue through December as we continue to raise funds to build the Unison farm!