Lettuce Rejoice! A Garden Grows in the Food Desert

Benjamin Mays High School Enterprise: Growing kale in a tote
Benjamin Mays High School Enterprise: Growing kale in a tote

In the Atlanta neighborhood surrounding Benjamin Mays High School, it’s easier to get kidney dialysis than buy a peach.

The nearest bona fide grocery store is miles away. Obesity is epidemic, and school kids breakfast on junk food and soda pop.

Nevertheless, when teacher Geri Nix and her students at Benjamin Mays were casting about for a Michigan Tech High School Enterprise project, growing healthy food did not immediately spring to mind. Neither did competing in the world’s biggest science fair. Nix wasn’t even a science teacher: she taught technology classes and had an interest in art and architecture. “We thought of making art out of junk and selling it,” she recalls. “But that didn’t have much science.”

Then the team stumbled upon the concept of skyscraper farming: converting entire buildings to agriculture.

“We considered the neighborhood where our school is located,” Nix says. “We have little access to fresh foods and vegetables. And we thought about not having outdoor space; many people live in apartments.”

That’s when they decided to build a farm of their own, inside the high school, in a classroom that was serendipitously surrounded by windows on three sides. (That turned out to be a very good thing, Nix says. “Grow lights are expensive.”)

First, the team investigated hydroponics, in which plants are grown in water enriched with chemical nutrients. They also studied aquaponics. Simply put, plants are grown in a fish tank, with the fish providing the fertilizer. “Fish are ammonia-making machines,” Nix explains. “They pee a lot.”

They found an aquarium and added goldfish. “Then we germinated sweet basil seeds and floated them like a raft on the aquarium,” she said. Amazingly, they turned into healthy green plants.

Eventually, the team constructed five units, one hydroponic and four aquaponic. “Our classroom looked like a greenhouse.”

What did they grow? “Several different kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, sweet basil, watermelon, squash, sunflowers, spinach, cucumbers, peppers and pole beans,” says Nix. “A lot of pole beans.”

The students learned quickly that the aquaponic systems had the hydroponics beat. They required no chemical fertilizers, just fish food for the fish. And they had the potential for a second income stream. In addition to peddling vegetables, you could sell fish if you were to replace goldfish with, say, tilapia, or even the goldfish’s fancy cousin, koi.

That said, aquaponics wasn’t easy. “There was more science than you could imagine,” Nix remembers. “The kids had to learn chemistry, the nitrogen cycle, test for pH . . . There’s a small window where the chemistry is just right: then the plants are thriving, and the fish are thriving. You have to have that balance perfectly, like in nature.”

Meanwhile, the team investigated their neighborhood’s tattered food web.

“We are living in a food desert in our community,” Nix says. “We have to go several miles to get to a grocery store.” People who don’t have cars have to take a cab or push a shopping cart.

Fast food and convenience stores are everywhere, fresh food is absent. “When there’s less access to fresh, healthy and nutritious foods, there seems to be an abundance of medical issues and obesity. We are starting to see an increase in dialysis clinics in our neighborhoods,” Nix says. “A lot of our kids start their day with Cheetos and Hot Fries and soda. Over 50 percent of the people in food deserts are at high risk for diabetes, hypertension, and kidney failure.”

In a society that doesn’t eat its vegetables, she says, “we’re like the canaries in the mine.”

Even if supermarkets were to sprout on every block, the students’ locally grown food has additional advantages. It’s fresher, tastes better and takes far less energy to produce and bring to market, Nix says. Furthermore, big corporate farms create their own brand of rural blight. Agriculture is responsible for 90 percent of the nation’s water use, and over 80 percent of that water is wasted, she says. “The runoff is full of chemicals.”

The Enterprise team hadn’t thought of entering science fairs, since they weren’t a science project, strictly speaking. But, with some encouragement, they did, and won the city-wide Atlanta science fair, which qualified them for the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held May 8-13 in Los Angeles. Sponsored by the Society for Science and the Public, it’s the world’s largest pre-college science competition.

It was a little overwhelming for the students from Benjamin Mays High School. “Other teams had projects on cancer and DNA, and we had several found fish tanks, including an old bookshelf wrapped in plastic,” Nix says, “But our kids had worked hard. They knew their project inside and out.” Sophomore Quantavious Yorel Griggs, 16, and Moroccan exchange student Nouhayla Houssaini, 17, told the judges what they had learned, including how aquaponics outperformed hydroponics and how the food industry had failed their community.

Their exhibit, titled “Alternative Methods of Optimizing Food Production in ‘Red-Lined’ and Urban Food Deserts Using Aquaponics and Hydroponics vs. Conventional Growing Methods,” took a $500 fourth place prize in the fair’s environmental category.

“To do so well was just phenomenal,” said Nix.

So, what’s next? Nix is retiring, and while she’ll probably do some teaching, she isn’t sure what will happen to their project. “But for now, our school has a greenhouse, and aquaponics and hydroponics will be part of our environmental science curriculum.”

By the most important measure, the Benjamin May High School Enterprise is already a success. “The overarching goal of High School Enterprise is to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Doug Oppliger, who coordinates the National Science Foundation program at Michigan Tech and recruits high schools to participate. And both Griggs and Houssaini are interested in becoming scientists. “It’s also made them think in terms of enterprise: marketing, making money, producing a product,” says Nix.

The students gave their vegetables away, but there’s no reason they couldn’t embark on a profit-making venture. Inner city neighborhoods are ripe for such an enterprise, she believes. “Years ago, people came around in a truck, and people bought their vegetables,” she says. “It’s back to the future. The things we did in the past, we’ll have to do again.”

But we might do those things differently. With help from some goldfish, a handful of high school students have already made a garden bloom in the desert.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.