Hydroponics stuff of magic at DeWitt Clinton


Like most schools, DeWitt Clinton High School has a garden. But unlike many, there is more than just a garden — it’s a fully functional hydroponic lab.

The glow of the LEDs against the chlorophyll calls for an angelic harmony. The luminance and structure of the space are both science-fiction, yet strangely natural. The lab is used to grow produce and plants through gardening without the use of soil.

The Aztecs and ancient Egyptians used this technology centuries ago, but today students like Maxwell Wood and Bryan Flannory use it to learn and feed their classmates and community. The lab fits inside a large classroom filled with massive trays the size of ping-pong tables. There are rows upon rows of plants nestled in Styrofoam in flood beds.

The lab is part of an environmental and sustainability class taught by Brandon Weinberg. And, at least for him, what better way is there to teach students about sustaining life than giving them the opportunity to create it.

“You also see the work that’s put into it so then it separates them in their understanding from the work it takes and the amount of labor it takes to produce anything,” said Erika Nillo, the lab farm manager from Teens for Food Justice. “And once you see the magic, you start to see things for its reality, and you start to break it down. Buying power is extremely strong … and I think that’s important for them to understand that they contribute to it.”

Teens for Food Justice is a non-profit that works to provide universal access to healthy foods. They teach students agricultural skills and good health practices. They also work in connection with Clinton.

“We’ve integrated their work with the environmental sustainability course,” said principal Pierre Orbe. “There’s also now an after-school club as well where students can do internships, and also a farming club.”

When growing plants inside, many tools are used to act in place of what nature would usually provide. The LEDs above the plants act as the sun while the brown substance that covers the plant roots is made from coconut coir, that is, grounded up coconut hair.

Despite the substitutes, produce like spinach, kale, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, basil and more thrive.

The hydroponics lab took two years to develop but has been running since the beginning of 2017. But the students aren’t the only ones tasting the fruits of their labor.

“They estimate (the garden) will grow up to 25,000 pounds of food throughout the course of one year,” Weinberg said. “As far I know, the big overarching goal is to combat food injustice (and) provide fresh food to the community. The food goes to the cafeteria and the food pantry.”

In the mornings, Flannory can be found working in the lab grooming the plant roots, which he says takes a really long time. Part of his job also includes counting the plants as well.

“It feels good,” Flannory said. “It feels good to help your classmates out and help them eat.”

There are other perks for the students working in the lab as well. Like when they come to class early, Nillo rewards them with smoothies. At the hydroponics lab, a circle of life attitude is encouraged.

For example, plants that can no longer be used are thrown back into the loop.

“Just like Mother Nature gives us plants, we give back by producing the compost so it’s kind of serving as mulch and providing the nutrition that we have up here” in the lab, Nillo said. “And sharing them with the nutrients downstairs (in the community garden), it adds a little bit of extra food for those plants.”

With the help of grants, Clinton plans to take hydroponic learning one step further by introducing a culinary course. Now, students will learn not only how to grow food but to use what they have to make a healthy meal.

According to a Teens for Food Justice report, more than 1 million New Yorkers live in a food desert — a community with limited access to affordable and fresh food. And of that million, 25 percent are kids.

Every year, $4 billion is spent on treatment caused by malnutrition or an unhealthy diet, according to the Teen for Food Justice Report. Clinton families in need of food are welcomed to visit their school pantry. Oftentimes people leave with bags of produce, Orbe said.

But the public school’s philanthropy doesn’t stop there. Students also give food to the community and soup kitchens — the hydroponics lab is making that much food. But like most great things, this high-tech lab had a humble start.

“We were building it, connecting pipes, setting up plants,” Wood said. “It’s a really nice method to show students how to manifest and create their own food, which is really good for them to do because with all these GMO foods and them being modified, you don’t really know what you’re eating unless you make it yourself. So this is definitely something I’d do in the future.”