Inside a 4,000 square foot greenhouse in West Baltimore in late June, untended basil plants were falling and going to seed. With the school closed, the farmers – students of the public charter school Green Street Academy – had given up their crops for the summer.
No matter: just after the 4th of July holidays, a group would be back in space for a five-week entrepreneurship program, during which they would be trained to deal with plants and technology and learn skills. in business. Since hydroponic farms don’t have to follow traditional growing seasons and speed up plant growth, the herbs would be back on track in no time.
“We need to consider growing food in urban settings. So how do you tap into and activate the underutilized space? »
The greenhouse, which was completed last year, is an example of a new wave of middle and high schools across the country embracing hydroponics. Technological advancements coupled with steady price declines make hydroponics an attractive interdisciplinary teaching tool, as well as a way to produce fresh, healthy food for cafeteria students and their wider communities.
In hydroponics, well-funded startups that grow vegetables on a mind-boggling scale using high-tech sensors and robots tend to get all the attention. These companies are making bold claims about the superiority of their systems on metrics like climate impact and resilience, even as unanswered questions about energy use, impacts on workers and small farms, health and profitability persist.
But hydroponic systems deserve the spotlight for another reason, said JJ Reidy, founder and CEO of a real estate design firm that helped build and raise money for the Green Street greenhouse. They can be plugged into a long list of places, including food banks, low-income housing estates and schools, where access to land and other factors make outdoor farming a challenge. And while the initial cost is significant, they can produce more food year-round in small spaces, which changes the calculation of value. “We need to consider growing food in urban environments,” he said. “So how do you tap into and activate the underutilized space? »
In Michael Jochner’s case, that space is a high school parking lot just south of San Jose, California.
As director of nutrition for the Morgan Hill Unified School District, Jochner is responsible for meals for 8,400 students and he focuses on maximizing nutrition while minimizing the environmental impact of those meals. He didn’t like that lettuce from USDA Foods was sometimes so old it spoiled before his team could serve it, and he worried about the impact of agriculture on this disaster-stricken state. drought.
After a months-long process to convince the school board to fund the project, in October 2021 he set up his first cargo farm 30 feet from his production kitchen. The hydroponic vertical farm housed in a shipping container costs around $150,000, and Jochner calculated that it would take about 7.5 years to see a return on investment. He now produces 1,000 heads of lettuce every week, enough to cover 60-70% of the greens used in the district’s salad bars. It’s been so successful that Jochner is ready to grow more: A second freight farm is on the way to him, and he’s applying for a grant to build another 1,500 square foot hydroponic greenhouse to grow cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.
According to Freight Farms, a Boston-based startup that has so far raised around $26 million in funding, there are 16 K-12 schools across the country currently using the company’s technology, in addition to units. Freight Farm in several colleges and pantries.