In our informal weekly podcast we cover all the interesting news that catches our eye in food, agtech, vertical farming, sustainability and New York hospitality. We interview guests who have a connection to the food system, who push for a better food world, and who we find to be interesting folks!
Rob sits down with Harrison Hillier, from Teens for Food Justice. He's the Senior Hydroponic Systems Manager, building farms in New York schools to eradicate food insecurity, grow fresh produce, and end the cycle of diet-related diseases.
Listen to this episode to learn more about Harrison's inspiring story and work, how these farms are transforming the future of food access, and what it's like building hydroponic systems in school.
Photo from Teens for Food Justice
You can learn more about Teens for Food Justice here!
Hello and welcome to Episode 14 of the Farm One podcast, and this time I've got a special episode. We're going to be talking to a good friend of mine and also a really great inspiring figure on the urban act scene, it's Harrison Hillier from Teens for Food Justice, or TFFJ, if you want to be brief about it. And I'm sitting here in Farm One, Harrison's over in his place in New York, and we're going to dive in and learn a bit more about what the folks in Teens for Food Justice do.
We might touch on some little bits of engineering and tips for how to build hydroponic systems and talk about food systems and all that good stuff. So welcome, Harrison. Good to see you today.
Thanks. Good to see you too. And congratulations. Couldn't be happier for you and the Mrs. That's fantastic.
Thanks man. I appreciate it. So let's start off, why don't you tell our audience who you are, what you do and how you got into this whole bit of urban agriculture?
Sure. Well, as they already know, my name is Harrison Hillier. So at Teens for Food Justice, I'm the senior hydroponic systems manager, which means that I design the systems that we use. I also design the farm layouts and collaborate with the various stakeholders that help us put the farms together so that contractors, different officials within the schools that we build in. And then I also oversee the actual roll out of the farm build and the commissioning of the systems.
So I'm actually from Maryland originally. I was born in a Shady Grove hospital in Derwood, Maryland. And I've consistently had an interest in agriculture throughout my life. We had a nice big backyard and a garden that we'd spend a lot of time cultivating things in. And I think that the happiest memories I have are tied to when our garden was doing the best. So I think I was predisposed to being a plant person right from the jump. And then decided that I wanted to get into greenhouse production in high school.
Actually, what I wanted to do was have a place where my friends could work and make a living, while they sorted themselves out. Because most of my friends were fairly aimless, came from troubled backgrounds. And so I wanted to make sure that they all had a place, a safe space, to sort themselves. And so I thought that would be a good way to do it.
Yes. Okey, cool way to get started. What age were you when you were starting to mess around with greenhouses then? Get your hands dirty?
With greenhouses it wasn't until I went to to get my bachelors to be honest. Initially I got an associate of arts in at Montgomery Community College, because I wanted to be a ceramicist and realized that that actually meant I wanted to be an art teacher, which is not what I wanted to do. So I shifted my focus to plant and soil science. And while I was at the University of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
So that's the HBCU Sister School to College Park. It's out on the panhandle of Maryland. If any of your listeners are familiar, that's deep in the country on the east side of Maryland. And got a job working with their soil studies program, which had greenhouses and helped the gentleman with his master's program studying soil fungus's impact on growing Scotch bonnets. And from there just started tinkering and assembling my own systems in some underutilized space in some of their hoop houses that they had there and found that that was really rewarding.
So naturally, I immediately shifted my focus again. And sorry, I live across the street from the hospital, so hopefully the traffic won't be too disruptive. So I shifted my focus to plant breeding. I wanted to, this was right around the time of the Fukushima event and what I wanted to do was grow special sunflowers so that they could help remediate the radioactive metals out of the soil water or the water that was in the soil from the reactors. And then got into a grad program at North Carolina State working with sweet potatoes.
And my whole focus was using microbiology to map out their genome, which I found was not what I wanted to do because, while plant breeding is endlessly fascinating, it's also incredibly dry in practice. It is very much application of statistics. So rather than working with plants directly, you spend most of your time working with Excel directly. And if you can't get your brain hooked on it, if you can't buy into that to that world, that very abstract world, it's not for you.
And so I decided to uproot and come to New York City. And I worked for a couple of nonprofits.
I worked for Sprout by design, helping them run a small hydroponics tower garden in a juvenile detention center out in Brownsville. I worked with Grow NYC out on Governor's Island, and through that I was linked with Kathy Sol, who needed a hydroponics aficionado to help her with a project at a Clinton high school in the Bronx.
So that's how you got started with Teens for Food Justice then. So what is Teens for food justice?
So TFFJ to keep it brief is a 501c3 nonprofit. Our core mission is to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to fresh, healthy food. End the cycle of health complications that are unequally impacting low income New Yorkers of color. We're doing this by governizing a youth led movement within Title 1 middle and high schools in the city's food deserts. And training students on indoor hydroponic vertical systems to grow thousands of pounds. This is very much farming equipment brought into schools.
And that products get served largely to the cafeteria, with access going to programs like City Harvest. There's donation, there's different. There's various organizations that we donate the excess to to make sure that it gets out to the rest of the community. And we also use these farms as learning centers for advocacy, community advocacy and entrepreneurship. We integrate farm based lessons into the school STEM classes and run an after school program with the aim to empower students to speak out on issues of food justice or food injustice that's affecting their communities.
So tell us a little bit about these kids, these teenagers. These folks who are trying to serve with your farms. What do they like? What do people need to know about them? And we have listeners who are in New York City, but also people outside. And it'd be great to understand what are the dynamics that these kids are facing and why do you do what you do?
I just want to give an answer that does them justice, because they are kids, and children are children the world over. But these populations, they deal with issues every day that most of the adults I know are not equipped to deal with. They deal with violence. They deal with not being able to get enough food.
A lot of them have to be the parent to their younger siblings. And then just the disillusionment that can come with being systematically oppressed. So it's difficult enough being a teenager. But then when you start to wake up to how the system is really tilted and rigged against you, it's the ON WE, the Depression. They have to fight through all of that. But when they do and they get the opportunity to engage in these programs, that's a big reason why I take so much personal gratification in the job that I do, because I could take my skills and apply them elsewhere.
I could go into the for profit world, I could go for commercial cultivation, but that doesn't have the same impact. There are a plethora of producers of one shape or size throughout the world. There's not a plethora of teams for food justices out there. So I'm happy that I can. That's why I personally do this. But when you afford these students, it's a very unique opportunity.
And they get to internalize that they and their friends and their community are worthy of this unique opportunity. You get to see them just be kids and they get to be curious and they get to put aside all of the unfair things that they have to deal with every day, that are not their fault, but are pushed upon them and they get to just see what a cucumber looks like growing up. Or when we release ladybugs, they get to just watch them do their thing. And they're just kids that have not been given a fair shake.
And I think that that's part of why we do what we do.
And tell us what's a typical interaction that a kid might have with one of your farms or one of your staff? What's the first moment that they might discover TFFJ and what might they be doing at that point.
So the first moment, honestly, is one of my favorite moments, because there's it's the first time they walk into the farm. And if they weren't part of the initial crew to help build the farm, which some students get the opportunity to help assemble our systems, they walk into this wall of green that they didn't even know was there. And so there's this big wow factor, because no one expects no one expects to walk into an indoor farm on the third floor of a high school in the Bronx.
But what they will be doing it's a mix. It's a blend of curricular programming that TFFJ staff has compiled in conjunction with the NYC's DOE STEM programming. And it will be delivered by a teacher from the school with the help of our farmer educator, which is what we call, basically a person who operates our farms. They have that dual role of being a farmer and being an educator, hence the name farmer educator.
Some days the students will be working directly, hands on with the crops, largely around things like seeding, transplanting, harvesting, and other times they'll be doing lessons around nutrition or advocacy or social justice. But also there have been instances, where other other disciplines within the school, so like an English teacher, will want to bring in students into the farm to read a book about farming. Or poetry that has to do with nature. So the way that students can interact with the farm - it varies.
It's lots of different potential ways that they could do this. We also have an after school program that is more focused on just the TFFJ curriculum. So they do things like survey different places to buy food around around their neighborhood and get a bit more into the details of the actual cultivation and propagation.
And so what is it, do you think about farming? Because obviously there's a lot of organizations in New York City doing various things with food. You've mentioned City Harvest already. There's Rethink. There's a bunch of folks doing things with food banks. There is maybe education on farms upstate, that kind of thing. But what is it, why is it so important to have farms in the city, in schools that the kids can interact with directly?
I think no matter where you're from, it's easy to take agriculture for granted. And it is easy to set aside or not really acknowledge how much power one is afforded by being able to grow their own food or to know how to grow their own food. It's so fundamental to everything that we do as a species, post hunting and gathering. Agriculture is the reason that we could stop being migratory, or as migratory, or rather forced to be migratory.
So giving people the opportunity to from seed to harvest, grow something and then the further experience of of actually preparing food with things that you've grown, it gives you a sense of agency and a sense of control. So that's part of the reason why it's so important to have farms. It is incredibly important. All of the work in the in the food supply system is incredibly important. But knowing where it starts from, it connects us back to our roots as a species, not even just like as a community or as a people.
But this is so fundamental and you don't think about that, because we've gotten really good at streamlining the process, in a way that tucks it away out of you.
And what's the typical experience that a teenager that you work with? It's like a softball question. But have they been to a farm before? Have they seen food being made like have they seen our food system like that? Or is this one of the first times that they actually get to see stuff?
I mean, of course, these kids have many different life experiences and none of their communities are monolithic. Some of them have been to farms, some of them have been to community gardens. I think more likely they've been to a community garden. And so they understand that scale of food production. Everyone has seen food being prepared. And that that is one of the touchstones that the TFFJ uses to connect with their students, because we do food demonstrations and we do recipes.
And so I think that that's an easy connect, because a lot of people have watched their parents cook or they have found that the rewarding part of interacting with food. There was, I guess it's a joke or I don't know what you'd call it, but this notion that people think food comes from the grocery store in the agricultural community, especially in the more rural soil based agricultural communities, they have a chuckle like, "how could you be so ignorant?"
No one thinks that. No one thinks that food comes from the grocery store. But I do think that these students have a very what can I eat right now that is the most satisfying. So a lot of that is high sugar, high salt, high carbohydrates, meat forward and veggies in the back interaction. And I don't blame them. I do it too, especially when I was in high school. I do it now. I'm in my thirties, I still do that to a shameful degree.
But when I was in high school, you couldn't stop me from eating junk food and drinking sodas, because that's my agent. It's my body. I'll do what I wish with it. And I can have these luxuries.
I was the same. When I was a teenager, my diet was about 40 percent chicken nuggets and 30 percent like some kind of fried potato product. And then maybe if you're lucky, some broccoli would like squeeze in at the end. But certainly, what we've found when kids come to our farms is everyone's got a different experience and some kids are really into really bold flavors and they're adventurous.
And then other folks are actually pretty scared to eat a leaf off a plant. And I guess what's interesting about growing the things that you primarily grow, you're growing leafy greens and you're growing things like that, is that that's often like the last thing on a kid's mind. Right? It's like, as you said, I want to get energy. I want to eat something that's full of energy, maybe it's satisfying in the moment.
And so leafy greens are the last thing. But also they're often a really, really expensive thing for someone to spend money on. What's your experience of getting kids around leafy greens more? And how does that change their attitude to it? And sometimes you're giving access to this industry that maybe very infrequently kids are going to try.
There is definitely "that's nasty" factor. One of the one of the people that has had the pleasure of collaborating with George Edwards is has said that you're going to get a lot of kids going, "that's nasty". And it's freshly grown greens, it's basil that's just been harvested. It's not nasty, it's a premium product that we are happy to let you have for free. Please eat up. But their experience or most people's experience with lettuce is iceberg lettuce. And technically it's lettuce, but it's what goes on a Subway sandwich or any number of fast food items.
So when you get them around leafy greens and then you get them past the "that's nasty" phase, they really do enjoy it. And and they get enthusiastic about it. They want to share it with their peers. I remember at one of our farms at our farm in BedStuy, we got some seeds donated that were these heirloom peppers. They're a little like fishers, Pippin's fish peppers, teeny little things, like a little Thai pepper, low heat.
And the first time these kids, middle schoolers ate these peppers, you'd have thought fireworks were going off. They were so enthusiastic, they started grabbing up all their friends. They wanted us to take videos of them eating these peppers like it was. It was a viral challenge. And it is one of my fondest memories, because they couldn't get enough of it. And it was just this new novel experience. But, like you said, some students aren't as enthusiastic.
But they even those students really like the community, the little in crowd, "I get to go work on the farm and have this unique experience" that even the most cynical of teenagers or middle schoolers, they have a hard time resisting that feeling. And then so we try and we take that and we channel it into getting them to feel the same way about eating the lettuce in the cafeteria. Because, again, the bulk of this produce is going into the cafeteria for salad bars and things like that.
So one of our challenges is channeling that feeling "you're proud to eat it here in the farm, you got to pass its nasty hurdle. Now, take it to the cafeteria and show everyone that this is worth eating and it's good."
And school cafeterias feed a lot of folks. And so I know one of the cool things about TFFJ is that you actually build farms that are significant in size. I mean, they're churning out a good quantity of produce. Can you give us some examples of what these farms are like? Where are they, how big they are and what kind of volumes of produce they might typically produce?
So we have we currently have farms in Brooklyn, in Manhattan. We've got two in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan, one in the Bronx. We are in the pipeline to open one out in Far Rockaway. And these farms are, as well as we have projects opening actually in Denver and in Miami. We're trying to replicate this in other, because New York is not the only place with Title 1 schools. New York is not the only place with food deserts.
These issues are they're global, but at the very least, they're across America. So we're trying to expand to address those far at home and abroad. But we found our sweet spot is really about a thousand square feet. That's where one thousand to fifteen hundred, is where we can find a nice ratio between learning space and growing systems. The smallest space we work in, which is one standard New York classroom, is five hundred and sixty square feet.
And that space is is difficult to split the difference within, although we've replicated that in our sites in Brooklyn. So our site in BedStuy that I was just talking about for Urban Assembly Unison Middle is 560 square feet. That is really trended more towards a learning space. So that can put out a little more than a thousand pounds a year, but it has a comfortable amount of space for a full classroom of students and teachers and volunteer staff.
Back when we could have that many people in such a small space and hopefully fingers crossed, we're not far from being able to get back there safely. And then out at the Brownsville Collaborative Middle School, we have another five hundred and sixty square foot space that is packed out for growth. So it can put out something like four to five thousand pounds a year. But it is difficult to... You have to be very mindful about how you're bringing students in and out of the room.
And it's more of a challenge. There's less human space in that one just because of the needs of the school and their focuses, their priorities for what they want out of that space. At our farm in Manhattan. That's a 1300 square foot space and that's about a 60/ 40 split between growing systems and learning space. And then our site up in the Bronx is at the Blickland High School. That's a 1500 square foot science classroom, that was being used as a enormous storage closet.
And so we were able to revitalize that space.
It was being underutilized. And now, again, it's a little bit more towards the 70/ 30 split, which we find is a little bit congested. And if we could sandbox that space, we'd probably change up the layout. And that was the second installation that I was part of at TFFJ. And every time we learn so much about not just the nuts and bolts, but also the human element of the school, how important it is to manage those relationships, how important it is to stay on top of things like distribution.
And really from the jump, understand what the school's goals are for the farm and even sometimes temper those expectations.
So the DeWitt Clinton farm can put out close to 10000, I think it's like 8500 pounds of produce a year. MLK is just a little bit less than that. But what's most important is people, they get lured in by that big number and in a classroom in Manhattan, that's that's a ton of food to put out. It's actually a few tons of food to put out every year.
So you have to make sure that they know or at least help them refine their ideas of how this is going to be used, because if it's not used properly, that's several tons of food waste. And that's not what we do. That's not what TFFJ is about. It's important that every every last head of lettuce or cucumber or a bunch of basil gets used as effectively as possible. So the bigger the farm, the bigger the responsibility that is.
And obviously, there's other folks who are putting smaller units in, purely for education. Of course there's people doing things when schools have outdoor spaces, doing other kinds of approaches. For instance, what kind of crops are you growing on your farms and why are you choosing those crops as opposed to others? What's the best way to use this space most effectively to grow things?
So we grow assorted leafy greens. So things like butterhead lettuces, we also grow different varieties of basil, oregano and thyme. So we have one menu that is a small form factor and a quick turnaround time, in terms of from seed to harvest. And we put those in vertical shallow raft culture systems, actually not unlike what you're sitting in front of right now, with our, sorry, I love the Vanna White delay.
Our grow methodology is different from yours in that we're looking for biomass and a relatively quick turnover. So our trade depth is a little narrower and our inter shelf height is also a little bit narrower so that we can get more shelves and get those quicker turnover crops. That really have been proven to grow well indoors. Now, the other menu that we work from are different fruiting crops. Mostly we grow cucumbers, specifically parthenocarpic cucumbers, meaning that they self pollinate and will just produce fruit throughout the lifespan.
We also will sometimes grow sweet peppers of different varieties, different colors. We used to grow tomatoes and of course tomatoes have a time honored tradition of being grown indoors hydroponically. But for us, because we are a good amount of the people working on our farm, our students, and while it is fun to hand pollinate tomato plants or pepper plants a few times, it is mind numbing to do it every single day and to do it as thoroughly as one has to to get the yield that makes it okey to give up that real estate.
So especially with tomatoes, if you are not on top of pruning, if you're not carefully managing the growth of the plant to make sure that it's effectively, that you've got just a few areas of growth that are really putting out yield. And if you're not thoroughly pollinating them, you're not going to get anything. You're going to get a big old tomato plants that you cannot eat. So it's a waste of space and it's a waste of resource. And it's not a rewarding experience for the students.
The pepper plants, it's the same. It has many of the same hang ups, but it's a smaller, more compact variety that we work with. So it's a little bit more manageable. But with these parthenocarpic cucumbers, really, we just have to make sure that they get up to, we use a canopy, that once our vines get up to the canopy, they can spread out and we let them decide how to best utilize the light that we're giving them.
With that canopy, there's a lot less pruning work that we do. We just make sure that the fruits are being caught up in that canopy, that they're making it and hanging down under the canopy for a nice, easy ergonomic harvesting. And we can yield significant amounts of cucumbers that way.
So I think that those are our two main reasons. Is one group the leafy greens, they're practically set and forget. And for our vining crops, we have to choose ones that are as set and forget as possible. They require some pruning, but not a lot. And they will produce a yield that justifies giving up that real estate because we could build a different kind of system there. We could use it more effectively. So that's the two varieties or the two wheel houses that we specialise in.
And also those are crops that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to grow outdoors in the winter. And so some of our schools do have outdoor programs. DeWitt Clinton High School has an outdoor garden, and I would like to think that they could be utilising their space in a more rewarding way in terms of crop selection, rather than growing heads of lettuce. We can do that inside. We can do that all day, all year.
So, you know, grow some callaloo, grow some stuff may be more culturally relevant to the population that is going to that school. Or maybe it's just more fun to watch grow and have that rewarding outdoor experience. Don't waste your space with heads of lettuce, we can do that inside.
So talking about one of those heads of lettuce. So you've talked about how it ends up in the cafeteria. Ideally, it ends up on someone's plate and they're eating some salad or they're putting it on a sandwich or something like that. So before it gets harvested or before it gets to the cafeteria, what are the touch points that the teenagers have with that crop, all the way back to it being planted?
So assuming that there's not a special project. So a biology teacher hasn't come in and said, "hey, I want this group of students to observe the growth of these plants over time", because in that case, it's many different touch points. It's an observational study of how the plants grow. But if this is one of our heads that is just being grown to be harvested and eaten, that's its life story. The students will come in and plant the seeds.
And then once the seeds have been germinated, so we use coco plugs. At one point we're using loose coir, but the issue there was getting the seedling back up out of the tray, without the plug disintegrating or the seedling being damaged and then just dying off.
So once the seed is germinated in that plug, the students come back and they'll transplanted into, it's basically it's finishing system. So we have one transplant step and that system will be dictated by the farmer educator. And then it'll grow, it will live its life until it's reached maturity. And then the students will come back through and we'll harvest that and then deliver it to the cafeteria.
So we try and minimise actual touch points, because these are food products. And so food safety is at the forefront of our mind. And we have a great track record in those terms. So there is a certain amount, especially in the middle school of making sure the kids aren't touching the plants. Which is a Herculean task, because they're fascinating. Why wouldn't you want to touch the plants? So we make sure that everyone's wearing gloves, make sure everyone's washed their hands, we make sure everyone's wearing shoe covers so that, when a student succumbs to their curiosity, they're not contaminating food.
So they are involved in the whole process from seed to harvest and even to the delivery within the school.
And to set up a system like these, when you walk in, because you're a lead engineer effectively on a lot of these projects. So when you walk into a school, how do you get a farm in a school?
That's the question.
How do you build a farm in a school? Because when I've visited you guys at MLK, I had the experience. I walked in. That's a school that tends to have a lot of security on it. You walk through the metal detector, you walk past a lot of cops, and the architecture is quite brutal. It's a very difficult building to imagine a farm.
And it's the exactly the same experience that you talked about. You walk down the hall and then all of a sudden you see bright lights, you see the green, you see these lush plants, which, by the way, looks super healthy when I was there. Really, really nicely maintained system and a really clean room. But how do you make that happen? My schools growing up, sometimes it was like a temporary classroom. Sometimes the floor was falling apart.
Sometimes there's no ventilation, which is..How do you build a farm in a school?
It is 20 percent building the systems and 80 percent collaboration. So there is a lot of social capital and trust, you have to have buy in from the administration. The Kevin Froner at MLK was integral in getting that farm set up. Because he's not just the principal. He is one of several principals. And so having him buy into the vision of this farm -it wouldn't have happened otherwise. Because I wouldn't be able to convince four other principals, I don't know how to speak their language.
They have lots of competing interests and they have their own vision for the school. And it's it seems almost always, like there's never enough room on the table. So if I'm going to bring this project and put it on the table, that means something else is either going to have to come off or it's going to fall off. There's just not enough room on the table.
So getting that buy in from local administration is incredibly important. You also have to have buy in from local electeds. Because they have access to funding that some of it is at their discretion, some of it they can help put your cosign on. They can say, "look, you know, I'm putting my reputation on this project". And then even that is more of the easy part. It's incredibly difficult. And I cannot sing the praises of my boss Kathy small enough, because she is so good at doing that.
Like watching her maintain and massage these relationships is exhausting. It's exhausting to watch her do it. So I can't imagine having to do it. And then the depth of vision to to be able to say, whatever the most recent setback is, it's not the end. We're just going to keep on going forward and really only having to put a project to bed for, once there's really no other options.
That kind of tenacity - I don't think you can learn it, to be honest with you I don't think you can learn it. I think it's bred into you. Beyond again, there's another layer of relationships, where you have to get teachers to buy in to these ideas. And that they will also commit to bringing their classroom into these farms. And then you have to get your custodial staff to buy in, which again, is integral. Some of the most productive relationships I've had in schools, building farms, are with the custodial staff.
Because they are the gatekeepers. They have all the keys, figuratively and literally.
So they're more likely than not going to have to receive a huge order of Unistrut steel or Uline wide span storage shelving, or there's going to be a delivery of a hundred gallons of liquid fertilizer, or there's going to be a leak. And they're going to have to clean it up or do triage. And so if you don't have that good rapport, your farm is is not going to be, it's not going to survive.
And then comes the easy part. Well, actually, then you have to have good rapport with your contractors. Because I do not have the skill set to add two hundred amps of electricity into a room or to tie in an RO filter into the plumbing of a school, or to punch a hole in a wall to run a drain for a sink. I don't have those skill sets, so I have to make sure that I have a good rapport with my contractors so that at the very least we have a working professional relationship.
So once all that's done, once everyone is on the same page, or at least the people who need to be on the page are you've managed. All of these nuanced and changing personal relationships, then you get to the part of actually building the systems. You've got the room ready, you've got your floor plan laid out. Everyone is OK with the types of systems and the amount of produce they're going to yield. And you have an idea of how you're going to get it to the people.
And then you have to find a crew to build these systems. And one of the things that we benefit from working in New York City is through these paid volunteer programs, like the Summer Youth Employment Program, where you can have young people from particular communities be paid to work for you, with you, for you under your direction. And so that works well with our mission of exposing people who otherwise would not have known about this to these unique life experiences, this unique opportunity to build a farm in a middle school in Brownsville, but also get paid for it.
And then you can also somewhat dictate within that organization the age range that should be working on this project and that'll help you plan out. Okey, well, I've got 18 to 20 year olds. I've got five of them coming in. So I want to make sure that I'm giving them the tasks that they're capable of either learning quickly or have already done. And so at MLK we had a few summer youth participants come in. They helped us put together the framing.
So laying out the floor, laying out the floor plan, putting together the framing and doing some of the more basic fabrication, like punching holes and flood trays, gluing together a simple PVC assemblies. But then after that, our former educator Michael Sternbergh helped me put together a good portion of the systems, which was it's part of TFFJ's training. So that you are more intimately familiar with how the systems are assembled. So you can do quick triage if needed, but also just have a basic or more than a basic understanding of the equipment you'll be operating.
We also brought in local contractor Caleb Raff. He's a local hydroponicist. And he was a huge help in getting, basically, the commissioning of the systems and setting up the more complicated things like the auto grow dosing. And so, it's 80 percent collaborating with people and then there's like this small thing of just putting the systems together and making sure that it works properly. You would think it's the other way. But it's absolutely not.
That's really interesting. In a very small way, I know what you mean about making sure you're on good terms with the superintendent of the building. Because we have the same issue here in Tribeca. We have the same issue in a couple of other farms. And it's if you're on good terms, if you approach them as someone who you want to have a long term working relationship with, then good things can happen.
And if you ignore people and or take them for granted, that's no way to enter a building and it's no way to construct something, that's going to be there for years. So I totally agree. If you had any advice for yourself five years ago, given the projects you've taken on and how you've tackled them, what do you think that might be?
I think the first one probably put down the PVC glue, because the initial systems were overly complicated and I was making a lot of custom parts. So when those custom parts failed, I have to build all new custom parts. And it's expensive and it's time consuming and systems that are not operating is yield loss. And also really reach out to your local networks. There are other people, who are at least casually interested in what you're doing and you never know what information they have come across.
But also, don't be shy reaching out to other professionals. We used to build vertical NFT systems, but after we had a consultation with Henry Gordon Smith, my friend Henry, who is literally everywhere all of the time, and one of his engineers Javid, we switched over to shallow raft culture for a few key failsafes reasons.
If your pump dies, your plants aren't dead in about 20 minutes. But with NFT. That is something that I have experienced over and over again. And in system design there's certain items that should be specialty items. So this is made for hydroponics, but a lot of them don't need to be. You can build an effective system using plumbing parts, just as easily as you can do it using like Botanica or plumbing parts.
But you probably build it for less. And your supply chain in terms of replacement parts will be much more stable, because you're not you're not at this little tangent of a branch of a supply chain. You're tapping into a supply chain that has lots of other people, that's got a lot of purchasing power. So the organizations, the companies that make these parts are going to make sure they make them in volume. And you can take advantage of that and you can take advantage of bulk things.
So pick where you want your specialization to be. And for the most part, it's not going to be in things like plumbing or what kind of pump you use. It's going to be, once you get to a certain scale in things like automation processes and what kind of lights you use.
That's good advice. So switching gears a little bit and just going back to the mission of Teens for Food Justice and thinking about the bigger picture. Food justice as a phrase. It's in that name. I think it might mean a few things to a few different people. I'm curious, what does it mean to you?
It is a nebulous phrase. And I think that it's probably for the best that it is nebulous, because I feel like it's one of those instances, where it's better to include than exclude. But for me, food justice is equal access to equal quality of food. And equal access to education about nutrition. I think those are two big pillars for me. So not only should everyone have the ability to buy good food for cheap. Also the part of good food is good shelf life, because one of the comments that we or one of the kudos that we get is that we'll give a head of lettuce to to a family of one of our students and they'll come back and they'll say that lasted for like two or three weeks in my fridge.
And so they didn't have to worry about constantly throwing away food, which is literally constantly throwing away money that they didn't want to throw away. And so just the quality of food in terms of shelf life has a huge impact, because if you have any trepidation about buying healthy food that might sit around for a few days, you're not going to do it. You're going to go to a fast food joint that is, hands down more convenient and might produce a little bit of leftovers, but not a whole lot.
And you're not going to feel bad if you throw away, General Tso's from five days ago. You just don't have that same connection.
It's a real issue. And I think with food waste in particular, there's a lot of rhetoric that essentially shames a consumer if they waste food. And it's like all consumers are so wasteful. But when you look at it, if you buy a bag of spinach from the grocery store and then within three or four days it's gone wet and unusable, of course you're going to throw it out. And actually what's been so positive and I know you're having this experience as well, we have this experience with our customers.
You get them some product and it's harvested same day. It's in a great container. They put it in the fridge and it will literally stay fresh for more than two weeks. And it's so different to the experience of buying it from a wholesaler or buying it from a grocery store. And I think a lot of people don't realize this about vertical farming.
It's actually maybe if not the top reason to do it, it's up there, in terms of having food produced locally, very, very short distance from harvest to delivery. And so it's really cool that you guys are noticing.
In terms of like like food miles, it'll be years before one of our farms racks up a significant amount of food miles. Especially compared to growing a head of lettuce in Arizona and then shipping it to New York for consumption, once the seed has been delivered all of our farms are a few hundred yards away from where they're going to be consumed. So the food mileages is virtually non-existent, especially if you define food mileage in the fuel it took to move that, because we're walking it down stairs.
We're not hopping in a truck to bring it around the front of the building.
Also changing your personal eating habits. They are just that they're habits. And it takes a while for you to be able to change them. So there's this compound negative effect. Like you said, if I buy a bag of spinach, because I have a genuine want to change my eating habits. And then by the time my mind is in a place where I can go, "oh, I should use that spinach", it's turned into, a spinaching mucus. I'm going to blow the whole thing away and then I'm going to say, "well, that was a waste".
And so that behavior was a waste of my time and money. And so that's compound negative effect. So it's going to reinforce bad eating habits just because you feel like you're throwing you just throw it away that effort, you've thrown away that money in the act of throwing away spoiled food.
No, totally. I'm glad, though, that there is a solution to this, whether it's, growing food on site in the school or growing food in a community and then distributing that somehow. I believe strongly that the technology for vertical farming gets gradually cheaper. It gets gradually easier to use, there's more and more people who know how to do it. And so access to this food at an affordable price, which is still somewhat problematic with vertical farming, but an affordable price becomes accessible to everyone.
So I'm positive that it will gradually get better. And I think folks like you are really, really part of that push. And the funny thing is sometimes people just need to see it, to then copy it, to be honest, and then just do it. Now they know someone has built a farm in a school. Someone has done it many times now, actually.
And you can do it too, or you can be part of that. Which leads me to ask, if people are listening to this and they work at a school or they're part of a school that they want to get involved with Teens for Food Justice, what's the best way to start that conversation?
So like I said earlier, it's a very collaborative process. A lot of the introductions that we make or are made for us, or are through word of mouth. So the best way to get involved is to search our website. That's teensforfoodjustice.org. There's a lot of information there about our farms, our program, who our staff is. It goes into more depth about our mission and our goal and the history of teams for food justice. And for any students that might be listening, we got into Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
That's the farm that I'm calling MLK, it's shorthand. The actual school we're in is the Manhattan Hunter Science High School. That was students came to one of our farms in the Bronx and then advocated for it to Kevin Froner. So that collaborative word of mouth is incredibly important. So there's a wealth of information about email@example.com.
Great. Very cool. And and talking about the other work that you do, I think I originally met you through the New York City Agriculture Collective. There's a lot of folks that we know mutually there. Tell us more about that. We've never really talked about that on the podcast. Our listeners are curious, what is the Agriculture Collective? What do you do? Why are you involved? What's it all about?
So that actually is where you and I first met. And again, the like the Ag tech community in this in the city is shockingly small, because it's the same faces over and over, which is great because they're all lovely people. But that is where I started getting dug in. So at that time, which would have been 2016, the AG Collective was communal.
You had to be in the the industry and then you had to interview to get in. And it was nonprofits and local entrepreneurs trying to build community and in and see what could be made of it. And over the years, the faces have changed, many of the original founders have moved on because of success, which is fantastic. And you're sorely missed, Rob, you're welcome back any time, no questions asked.
There will be a hazing. But what we have shifted into is 501c3. We actually just got confirmation from the IRS that our paperwork was approved earlier today. So I'm actually really happy about that, because that was a long process. And so there's just a few more steps left actually internally to to New York City, because this is a difficult place to run a nonprofit. But our mission now is to remove barriers to entry for individuals who want to start their career in ag tech.
We do that through networking events such as Fresh in February or AG Tech Week. Those are two big tech pole events. And then we're doing everything we can really to leverage our network to bring interested parties and people seeking knowledge together with people who can mentor them or just with resources that will help them further their journey in ag tech in the city. So we have some events that we're trying to formulate and right now we have a very marked boom bust with AG Tech Week being in conjunction with Climate Week.
We get a lot of attention and a lot of engagement there, and it's fantastic. And then there's kind of nothing until February. And then again, so we have Fresh in February, which is a one night showcase of the produce that you can get locally. The local produce you can get in the dead of a New York winter. And then there's another lull until the AG Tech next year. So we're trying to figure out ways that we can flatten the curve, to use the phrase you definitely invented.
Well, speaking of which, I mean, is Fresh in February going to be happening this year? I know you did a virtual AG Tech week last year. What's going on this year?
So it is happening, but it's going to be very, very different. So what we're trying to do, because it's not safe to have these gatherings and the crux of Fresh in February is sharing food, is eating and having those in-person interactions. So we're going to spend February working out how we can highlight New York City's growers, how we can basically bring consumers to them. And so that's going to be our Fresh and Feb this year. Is how can we take the heart and soul of Fresh in February and basically pivot it to covid?
We did it for AG Tech Week and it was difficult. It was difficult to do. And I miss AG Tech weeks passed, because there's really nothing like the the frantic scavenger hunt of going from one place to another throughout the city and the friendships made and then the toasts and the networking events and all of it's great. It's great to be surrounded by that community. And so there was a certain amount of sadness, having to take it virtual. But this is the reality that we are in.
And the only thing worse than not having an event would be having an event where people are getting sick, where we're not actually protecting the community that we love and building it.
So we're going to be pivoting Fresh and Feb. I don't know if it's going to be a discrete event, like it has been in in years past, but it's definitely not been shelved.
So cool. Personally, I've always loved the AG Tech or our collective events and we certainly have had people here during active week come and visit the farm. We had great panel discussions. I think it's it's always a place where you meet super enthusiastic people. You meet people who are thinking of maybe doing a career change. You meet people who are out of college. And I've always been struck by just the amount of passion that people have and the amount of curiosity they have. A group of people come in and some people will be obsessed with the engineering and they'll be asking you one hundred questions about this tray. And then other folks got ideas for starting up new businesses and stuff. And I think it's always been great.
And it actually doesn't, it's a year ago now pretty much, but I remember fresh in February last year, we had that project farmhouse and those opportunities to see what everyone's doing and talk. And there's always just a lot of positivity. I think, people who are doing urban ag in New York City by default are very positive people. And you have to be to get through some of the difficulties.
Got to be optimistic. Absolutely.
You do. But also, I think that it shows that people really care about this stuff and people see solutions everywhere. And of course, there are larger companies that have raised lots of money. There are sort of like more established green house type businesses. But also there's just lots of people doing little things and doing their little community garden projects, doing little things with food. And and for me, that's the thing that I get really I feel really good about.
It's like real people doing small things. And that's something that's at the heart of the agriculture collective. So I share your sadness that we can't do it, but of course we have to hang on. And I think everyone appreciates that. And so talking of covid, I can't get away with not mentioning. Of course, I'm sure that's been difficult for Teens for Food Justice.
What's the situation now and how do you think things are going to evolve over the next year for you guys and what's how have you responded to this?
So, working in schools, as we do, is both incredibly unique and rewarding and also its own unique challenges. And so when the DOE closed schools in mid-March last year, TFFJ had to shut down our school based farms. For me personally, that was very frustrating, because at the time there was a lot of concern about how will NYC's food supplies, food chains manage this?
How is this going to affect, because there's already so much hunger in the city. And now you're shutting down the place where a lot and a significant amount of either unstable housed or homeless students get consistent meals. And then to also know that what you do for a living is build the infrastructure that could help address these issues. To have that not be considered is very frustrating. It was hard to deal with. And it was a very disillusioned time for me personally, but TFFJ is made up of people far more resilient than I am.
And so after harvesting and donating almost a thousand pounds of our produce from our sites, that's from the Bronx, from our site BedStuy, from Manhattan, we started connecting with other local hydroponic growers to push that produce directly to the communities that needed them.
So we currently run weekly and biweekly food distributions and for school partner communities. So in Kingsbridge in the Bronx, that's near DeWitt Clinton High School campus. In Brownsville and Brooklyn. And at our Brownsville Collaborative Middle School in Far Rockaway in Queens, even though our farm is not even open yet, we're doing weekly or biweekly food distribution. And the Lincoln Center and Hell's Kitchen near the MLK educational campus, where we largely serve the Natures Amsterdam houses.
So those distributions have brought our benefit up to a thousand households a week.
And even though we would love to be the producers of whatever we can do to put into these boxes. The fact that the people at TFFJ just didn't dropped down their hands, again, I credit it up to Cathy, because this is her brainchild and her dream and her vision. And to watch it be so existentially threatened, but then to still pivot and say we can still get food out to these communities, - is next level. [crosstalk 01:08:54]
No, I was going to say, it sounds like you have a really great culture at the organization. And I'm sure a lot of that comes from Cathy. It comes from the folks on the team. I was going to ask if have someone wanted to end up in your job in a few years time in a similar organization, what's a good path to get there? And what kind of traits, attributes, skills do they need to build up to to make them a great candidate for an organization like TFFJ?
It's a good question. So my job in a few years, there's definitely going to be a knife fight or something, because I love my job.
I wasn't specifically saying your job.
I guess the trait is "don't miss". What you need to do. I'm trying to think how I did it and and then distill that into a pathway that makes sense. When I came into the city, I knew I knew that I was going to have to do more for very little. So there was a lot of volunteering. So what you really need to do is understand that nothing you're doing is going to happen in a vacuum. So if you're trying to get into urban ag or if you're trying to get into an agricultural based non-profit, find the people that are already doing it, find the organizations that already exist. There's Harlem Grown, there's Green Bronx Machine, Just Foods. These are all Grow NYC, City Harvest.
These are organizations that already are doing it. And I happily accept volunteer work. And I know that that can seem like a non starter if you're living off of your savings or maybe you're not living off your savings and you just have to make do with what you can to then volunteer your time. It's like one of the few things that you don't feel like you have any of.
And so, what gets you through that is really believing in the mission, really finding something that will get you out of bed on Saturday. And you can go to a food box distribution or you can go in and volunteer at a Grow NYC event and hand out flyers and make connections with the people that are already doing it. That's how you get into really any community. But that's how I got into the urban ag community in the city.
And I would love to say that there is a particular skill set that predisposes you to building hydroponic systems, but I don't think it exists. I feel like you could go to school for hydroponic systems, which I didn't even do. I am unique in having a background in agriculture. But one of the things that's really impressive is that the community in ag tech in the city comes from varied backgrounds. There's people who have MBAs.
I met one guy who got a master's in making prosthetics and decided that he wanted to move into urban ag. So I think that circling back to what I said earlier on, how fundamental agriculture is to everything that we do, you can literally do anything plus agriculture. So maybe you have a background in marketing or maybe you have a background in psychology. There are ways to take those skills and apply it through the lens of agriculture. Farmers need to sell their crops. And to do that, they need to have a logo and advertising story and all of the things that you would learn, if you had a background in advertising, that aren't just for agriculture, but you can apply it that way.
Or maybe your background in psychology has taught you or giving you insight into how people think. And you can do things like manage a workforce at a farm or come and design operational materials.
You need to buy into the mission. You need to be willing to go the extra mile just on on your own moxie and then seek out community as quickly as possible, because, like you were saying about how positive the community around Fresh in February Ag Tech week is. People like seeing their interests reflected in other people. So if you come to the table and say, I also love this and I want to add to it, you will be positively received.
It's good advice. And to wrap up here a little bit, I want to ask you something that's a little bit more pie in the sky vision thing. If you were if you were running New York City's Urban Agriculture Initiative, what would you want to try to achieve within the next 10 years? Where do you think it could get to? What do we need to change to get to where we could get to as a city to be great at urban AG.
10 years? All right. Well, I'm already drunk with power, so.
No corruption please.
No, I think some of the barriers to entry to urban ag/ ag tech in the city is just it's New York. It's an expensive place to exist. So any subsidies that we can provide to the people who want to run a startup here would be fantastic. Any accelerators that are heavily funded by the city would be would have a night and day impact. I also think that there are too many vacant lots and not enough gardens.
And I love growing stuff indoors, I love being an inside farmer. But matter of fact is that a vacant lot doesn't help anyone. And some of the stories I've heard from local community gardener, community advocates, people like Care Washington or Keith Carr, they've gone through it. I remember one of my first a city planning meeting or something that I went to. Keith Carr was talking about how he had chained himself to bulldozers and had been arrested for to protect community gardens.
He shouldn't have to do that. He shouldn't have to do that. That that is a fundamental failing of the local government, by the local government of its people. So if we want to be the best, if we want people to point to New York as a city for urban ag and urban ag tech, we have to support those people who are doing it.
So that's what I would do. I think that there's probably ways we can shift how money moves through the city and make sure that there's incentives for green space and there's decentives for people holding empty lots, just waiting for someone with buckets of money to want to develop it. I think that that's regressive. All you'll end up is with empty lots.
Okey. All right. Well, you got my vote, if that counts. Yeah. I want to say thank you, Harrison. If there's any last things that you think people should know about Teens for Food Justice or the New York City Agriculture Collective, now's the time for some parting words.
Please, please go to teensforfoodjustice.org. Check us out. You can find our Instagram handles and Twitter. We're on social media. I know that the Collective is got a flagellant Tik Tok.
Oh, I didn't know this.
Stay tuned. It's going. But also we're not the only two organizations doing things. Go out, do the easy part, go online and find community advocates. Like here in Karen Washington, I know she's on Instagram, @karwasher with a K. She's been doing this, and then from there, branch out find community based organizations that align with your personal mission and then donate money if you can. If you can't donate time.
It's a sticky thing to talk about, but these community based organizations are largely led by people of color. And so for white people looking to help, go, go help. But don't go to lead. Go to be led. Go to listen to them, amplify their voices, because they're more intimately aware than you are, especially if it's your first time volunteering. Go there to be about it, not to post about it, you know what I mean.
And understand that you should not have the aim of adopting their cause. You should be there to help support them. So that's what I would that's what I would say.
Great advice. Great way to end. I want to say thank you Harrison. It's been super interesting for me. I feel like I've learnt a lot. I'm really inspired what you guys are doing and I'm so sure that post covid that's going to just be more and more of these farms and it's going to be really inspiring to people not just in America, but I think around the world. I just think it's a great model. I think what you're doing is awesome.
And I think that the more we can get our kids in front of food, around food and part of the process of making food, it's a little it's another little step to fixing the food system and fixing food equality. And I'm really inspired by it. So I'm glad we could chat today.
Thank you for having me. This is great.
Thank you. All right.