Hydroponics Help Urban Schools Grow Food Year-Round


Inside a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse in west Baltimore at the end of June, untended basil plants were falling over and going to seed. School was out, so the farmers—students at public charter school Green Street Academy—had abandoned their crops for the summer.

No matter: Right after the July 4th holiday, a group would be back in the space for a five-week entrepreneurship program, during which they’d be trained to tend to the plants and technology and learn business skills. Since hydroponic farms don’t have to adhere to traditional growing seasons and accelerate plant growth, the herbs would get back on track in no time.

“We have to look at growing food in urban environments. So, how do you leverage and activate underutilized space?”

The greenhouse, which was completed last year, is one example of a new wave of middle- and high schools around the country that are embracing hydroponic farming. Advances in technology coupled with steady decreases in price make hydroponics an appealing interdisciplinary teaching tool—as well as a way to produce fresh, healthy food for students in the cafeteria and their broader communities.

In hydroponics, well-funded startup companies growing vegetables at a mind-boggling scale using high-tech sensors and robots tend to get all the attention. Those companies are making bold claims around the superiority of their systems on metrics such as climate impact and resilience—even as unanswered questions about energy use, impacts on workers and small farms, health, and profitability linger.

But hydroponic systems deserve the spotlight for another reason, said J.J. Reidy, the founder and CEO of a real estate design company that helped build and raise funds for the Green Street greenhouse. They can be plugged into a long list of places—including food banks, low-income housing developments, and schools—where land access and other factors make outdoor farming a challenge. And while the upfront cost is significant, they can produce more food year-round in small spaces, which changes the value calculation. “We have to look at growing food in urban environments,” he said. “So, how do you leverage and activate underutilized space?”

In Michael Jochner’s case, that space is a high school parking lot just south of San Jose, California.

As the nutrition director for Morgan Hill Unified School District, Jochner is in charge of meals for 8,400 students, and he’s focused on maximizing nutrition while minimizing the environmental impact of those meals. He didn’t like that lettuce coming from USDA Foods was sometimes so old it went bad before his team could serve it, and he was concerned about agriculture’s impact on the drought-stricken state.

The Morgan Hill Unified School District's hydroponic Freight Farm. (Photo credit: Michael Jochner)

Delivering the Morgan Hill Unified School District’s hydroponic Freight Farm. (Photo credit: Michael Jochner)

After a months-long process of convincing the school board to fund the project, in October 2021 he installed his first Freight Farm 30 feet away from his production kitchen. The hydroponic vertical farm housed in a shipping container costs about $150,000, and Jochner calculated it would take about 7.5 years to get a return on the investment. It now produces 1,000 heads of lettuce every week, enough to cover 60 to 70 percent of the greens used in the district’s salad bars. It has been such a success that Jochner’s ready to grow more: A second Freight Farm is on its 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.

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