Hillel Academy's gardening program grows food, awareness

At Hillel Academy, sixth-graders Georgia Ryb, Rachel Howell, Jayden Forman and Michael Rabin tend to the hydroponic garden, which helps teach biology, chemistry and agriculture.
At Hillel Academy, sixth-graders Georgia Ryb, Rachel Howell, Jayden Forman and Michael Rabin tend to the hydroponic garden, which helps teach biology, chemistry and agriculture.
Published Dec. 10, 2015

TAMPA — Arielle Solomon, 12, would love to have a garden in her back yard.

But it's a dream that, for now, goes unfulfilled as long as the seventh-grader lives in what she describes as a "very concrete-filled home."

"We just don't have room for a garden," she said.

But thanks to a new gardening program adopted by her school, Hillel Academy, she flexes her green thumb and gives back to the community all while learning lessons in biology, chemistry and innovative agriculture.

Hillel Academy has partnered with Tampa Urban Benefit Farms, a local nonprofit organization that delivers fresh produce to communities that lack affordable, nutritious food, to supply food pantries with fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically.

Hydroponics is a soilless method of growing plants using mineral nutrient water.

While school gardens are common — Hillel Academy has had an Earth Box vegetable garden for years — hydroponic gardening is a concept that Nava Kirk, the founder of TUB Farms, said she would like to see catch on.

"Not every school can put in a traditional garden," she said. "Our hope is that we become a resource for schools so they can have the garden they want and connect students to the larger community."

Founded in March, TUB Farms' primary mission is to work with food pantries and shelters to install hydroponic systems. While that's still the goal, Kirk said she later came up with the idea to include schools, and the school-to-pantry program was born.

Kirk, a Hillel Academy alumna, said she approached the school with her idea and found immediate acceptance from administrators and middle school science teacher Amy Basham.

Kirk worked with Urban Oasis Farm Technology to design and install the hydroponic system over the summer. At the start of school in September, students planted crops of lettuce, Swiss chard, green beans and cucumbers.

Students currently are testing broccoli as the next crop, Basham said.

An important component of the school-to-pantry program is providing teachers with information on garden maintenance and guidance on curriculum, Kirk said.

"It gives teachers the ability to use the system however they want," she said. "Teachers are so busy, so it takes that pressure off of them."

The system at Hillel Academy can grow more than 400 plants. Students at every grade level participate from planting to harvesting, Basham said.

"The kids are excited that we're growing food for the community," she said. "It's pretty cool."

Eighth-grader Natan Egosi, 13, said he likes having the hydroponic garden on school grounds.

"It's really interesting, knowing how it works," he said. "It would be really nice to have a hydroponic farm at my house."

Hillsborough County Family Partnership Alliance, which provides social services to foster families, recently received the first donation of vegetables grown by Hillel Academy students.

Jill Tyree, director of the alliance's food pantry, said she's grateful that the organization will have a source of fresh produce to provide the more than 300 people who visit each month.

Equally exciting are the lessons about service and community that students are learning through the program, Tyree said.

"I think it's important for them. And they'll keep sharing with others," she said.

Arielle, the seventh-grader, said the school-to-pantry program has been "a really great experience."

"I think helping people in our community is amazing," she said. "We're all one big family when you think about it, and helping each other is helping the family."

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