A Seed Well Planted at Scholars’

 A Seed Well Planted at Scholars’

By Katie McFadden

Over the summer, a big seed was planted on Beach 104th Street. The produce they’re growing is off the chard. And the Scholars’ Academy hydroponic farm is looking radishing. On Tuesday, March 12, the school celebrated its initial season of bountiful harvests with a ribbon cutting, and it’s just going to continue to grow.

When school started in September 2023, the students of Scholars’ Academy had a new tool at their disposal, one that keeps on giving—an indoor vertical hydroponic farm. The schools within the Far Rockaway Educational Campus were the first of four schools on the peninsula to get a taste of this technology in the summer of 2022, thanks to a partnership with Teens for Food Justice, and funding made possible by local council members, assembly members and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

Since this summer, the seed started being planted, the Montel shelving system and technology was built and as the 2023-2024 school year started, Scholars’ Academy students took off running with it, finding unique and various ways to incorporate the farm into their education and lives. They started planting in November and the first harvest was December 18. From various lettuces to herbs and even radishes and cucumbers, the farm is lush with produce. The hydroponic farm system has the capability of producing 9,000 pounds of produce a year. But already, Scholars’ Academy has gone above and beyond, harvesting 1,300 pounds since December, and 300 pounds alone just last week, putting them on track to far exceed expectations.

In addition to the amount of food they’ve produced, the students have exceeded expectations in the ways they’ve found to make sure nothing goes to waste and to spread the health wealth. Every week, the produce is incorporated into the school’s lunches. Clubs and classes have even found ways to make use of the farm. For instance, the school’s cooking club concocts smoothies for classmates to sample during lunch and at Scholars’ STEAM night on Tuesday, they made a batch of fresh strawberry basil lemonade with basil from the farm. Last week, throughout performances of the school’s winter play, “SpongeBob SquarePants,” the cooking club created a theme menu, featuring items like a kelp smoothie (made with kale from the farm) that they sold as a fundraiser. The school’s media team regularly covers the farm, posting updates on Scholars’ Instagram. Even the AP Literature class is getting in on the fun, planting cucumbers, which they’ll harvest after they finish studying, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” culminating in a tea party complete with cucumber sandwiches.

Before class, during the school day and even after school, more than 300 students get involved with the indoor farm, ensuring its successful growth and making the most use out of it. And Scholars’ even shares the abundance of produce. Students often go home with produce to bring to their families. And even bigger, the students help orchestrate donations to local nonprofit organizations including The Campaign Against Hunger, House on the Rock Church and JASA senior center, so the organizations can distribute the produce to those in need, making Scholars’ Academy’s farm beneficial to the community at large.

At Tuesday’s ribbon cutting, Scholars’ Academy principal Michele Smyth brought together all of those who made the farm and its bountiful blessings possible, including CEO and Founder of Teens Food For Justice, Katherine Soll and some of TFFJ’s team members who regularly help with the farm; Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who helped secure funding for such programs as city councilman and continues to do so; Councilwoman Joann Ariola, who continues to secure funding for such projects; representatives from Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato’s office, members of the student body government and more. Principal Smyth thanked all for their contributions. “The value of the experiences that the students have with the farm is beyond measure. What you have donated, you have planted the seed, and it is growing and continues to grow. We are watering it and taking great care to make sure we can get everything out of it,” Smyth said.

As Soll explained, with the now two indoor farms at local schools, and two more to come at M.S. 53 and P.S. 183 by September 2024, “The goal is to create an integrated urban farming hyper local experience that can start in kindergarten and range through their high school years that can address food insecurity but also health education opportunity here. The students are responsible for every aspect of the farm.”

Sixth grader Liahna Weinstein had the benefit of starting her Scholars’ Academy education as the farm began, and she’s taken full advantage of it. Not only does Weinstein utilize the farm as part of her STEAM elective during the school day, she shows up before school to harvest, and stays after school with the cooking club to come up with tasty recipes using the farm’s ingredients. “I love the farm. You feel very in control and it’s fun and you get to feel like an adult. I love that we get to bring the produce to the kids in the school and outside and it makes people feel better,” she said.

Tenth grader Ikhlaas Mohammed has discovered ways to incorporate the farm into his curriculum through his Sustainability elective. In the class, students can take on leadership roles. Mohammed works as the PR coordinator, working with the school’s media team on their coverage of the farm. Mohammed says it’s a much welcome addition to his Scholars’ experience. “It means so much not only as a class, but as a community. The student government and Key Club members are great at managing the campus distributions and share the food. Scholars’ is really big on the community aspect of things and it’s great for students and teachers to see the fact that we can give back to the community in a way that schools rarely get to. We’re really glad that we have this opportunity,” Mohammed said. “I hope this can come to all the schools in New York City.”

During his speech, student body president Surya Mohan spoke more on the school’s ability to share this with the community. “I remember first helping to build the farm a couple months ago with fellow AP Physics students and since then, the impact that the farm has had on our community is truly vast. I have directly witnessed how the farm is making nutritious food more accessible. The creation of the farm has enacted a true embodiment of our school’s core values,” Mohan said.

Queens BP Richards said the Scholars’ Academy farm is serving its purpose. “This is about correcting many of the inequities we see on the peninsula. We view these investments as a way of correcting the historic disinvestments that have happened for a long time from Far Rockaway to Rockaway Beach. We reside in a food desert and we’re correcting that. To be able to see kids from Far Rockaway High School to Scholars’ Academy, Teens for Food Justice being a part of the solution, this is an example of what we should be doing in this country.”

Councilwoman Ariola, whose grandson is a student at Scholars’ Academy, applauded the students for the hard work they’ve poured into the farm. “You are the generation that is going to transform the world and you’re already beginning to do this.  This is so nice to see, and my mind was blown when I saw how big it is and how lush it is.”

For more information about Teens for Food Justice farms, check out: teensforfoodjustice.org, and for updates, see teensforfoodjustice and thescholarsnyc on Instagram.

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