Harvesting the Benefits of Hydroponics: Highlights from the Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Preschoolers getting ready to taste their hydroponically-grown lettuce. Source: San Pedro Elementary, San Rafael, California, March 2020 Final Survey

By Jenileigh Harris, Program Associate

National Farm to School Network in partnership with Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation and collaboration with KidsGardening is excited to release Exploring Hydroponics: A Classroom Lesson Guide. This lesson guide is the product of the Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project and includes basic how-to information for growing plants hydroponically in the classroom, lesson plans to help students learn through hands-on investigations, construction plans for simple hydroponic setups, and additional reference materials to support educators. The lessons are designed to align with third through fifth grade Next Generation Science Standards but can be adapted for both younger and older students and those with different abilities. The lessons are sequenced so that each topic builds upon the previous topics but the activities can also be used independently, in any order.

The Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project, launched in the fall of 2019, was aimed at integrating indoor hydroponics growing systems into systemically under resourced schools across the country. National Farm to School Network supported hydroponics experts, KidsGardening, in developing the curriculum guide, Exploring Hydroponics: A Classroom Lesson Guide. During the 2019-2020 school year, the curriculum was used in conjunction with Scotts Miracle-Gro’s AeroGarden hydroponic kits in 15 schools across California, New York and Washington D.C. In addition to introducing hydroponics into their science, technology engineering and math (STEM) classrooms, pilot schools participated in peer learning and networking calls to share successes and challenges with each other.

“The grow station is the shining light in an amazing space. It draws visitors to it and opens up conversation about what we do at FoodPrints and Kimball. The students love to talk about it. Thank you for letting us participate!” -Kimball Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Between the 2018-2019 and the 2019-2020 school year, there was an overall increase in both engagement of students in garden-based activities as well as the total number of students reached by gardening or farm to school activities that align with Next Generation Standards as a direct result of the hydroponics system and curriculum.

By March 2020, a total of 2204 students were reached through the pilot project with gardening or farm to school activities that align with Next Generation Science Standards across New York, Washington D.C., and California, and 1954 students were directly engaged in lessons or activities using the hydroponics growing system. Additionally, between September 2019 and March 2020, there was a perceived 20% increase in student interest and a 15% increase in adult interest (teachers, administration, teaching aides, community members) in gardening as a direct result of the hydroponics system and Exploring Hydroponics curriculum.

“The Exploring Hydroponics guide has really been a huge asset to our science curriculum.” -Amidon-Bowen Elementary, Washington, D.C.

Pilot schools cited many observed benefits and positive outcomes due to the hydroponics curriculum and growing systems for students, families and adults in their respective school communities. These include:

Benefits for Students Benefits for Students, Families, Educators and Community Members

  • Interest and knowledge of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts
  • Increased demonstration of social-emotional development (e.g., cooperation, empathy, self-regulation)
  • Access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Increased engagement
  • Improved attitudes, knowledge and behaviors
  • Improved knowledge about gardening, agriculture and food systems

Teacher, Helene, leads students in exploring the hydroponics garden and learning about how far away their food comes from. Source: P.S. 32 The Belmont School, New York, January 2020 Site Visit

When schools began closing in March, some pilot schools were able to pivot and continue hydroponics and gardening learning at home. At Kimball Elementary, the FoodPrints teacher has encouraged kids to find bean or vegetable seeds, wrap them in damp paper towels, insert into a plastic bag, tape to a window with lots of sunlight and observe daily for germination. At other schools, teachers were able to take the hydroponics units home and update students remotely through online meetings and photos. The Exploring Hydroponics guide offers many remote-adaptable lessons and at-home opportunities including how to build an aeration system at home, map your meals explorations, exploring land use worksheets, discussion questions and digging deeper videos.

“I documented the plants before we left school, transplanted them with students into soil and we are studying how they are growing at home now via live meetings and pictures. Students have been engaged in a "regrow" vegetables from scratch lesson, and have shared amazing results of starting vegetables in water with scraps they normally would've thrown out.” –P.S. 32, The Belmont School, Bronx, NYNational Farm to School Network and Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation learned a lot from the schools as they piloted and adapted the Exploring Hydroponics curriculum, troubleshooted the AeroGarden grow kit, and brought the hydroponics learning experience to life for their students. By all measures, the Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project has been a success: there was an overall increase in student and family engagement in gardening and farm to school activities as a direct result of the hydroponics growing system and curriculum. While the benefits and positive outcomes are substantial, opportunities for growth have also emerged:

Strategies for better curriculum integration of opportunities to encourage at-home hydroponics and gardening

  • Adapting curriculum for younger ages
  • More opportunities to support sustained implementation (e.g., to purchase pods and other necessary resources)
  • Incorporating more multimedia tools or approaches within curriculum (e.g., instructional video)
  • Collecting and disaggregating data based on race and income (e.g., which students are more likely to have access to gardening at home?)
  • More opportunities to engage families
Students giving presentations to their classmates about hydroponics. Source: P.S. 214, Bronx, New York, March 2020 Final Survey

National Farm to School Network and Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation are excited to see how schools continue to use their hydroponic curriculum and systems in the upcoming school year, whatever that may look like, and beyond. We know students increased their understanding of where their food comes from, the environmental impacts of growing food in soil versus water, their access to fresh produce, and we can’t wait to see these benefits grow.

USDA Announces 2020 Farm to School Grant Recipients

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Congratulations to the newest USDA Farm to School Grant Program recipients! USDA announced on Monday that a record-breaking 159 projects in 46 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have been awarded farm to school grants to explore, expand or scale up their farm to school activities. The 2020 awards total $12.1 million, and will impact 2.5 million students in 7,610 schools.

Twenty-six National Farm to School Network Core and Supporting Partner organizations have been selected for 2020 grants, including:

Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries
Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Arizona Department of Education
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Guidestone Colorado
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Georgia Department of Education
Indiana State Department of Health
Kansas State Department of Education
Third Sector New England
Michigan Department of Education
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Nebraska Department of Education
Nevada Department of Agriculture
New Hampshire Department of Education
New Mexico Department of Public Education
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
Oklahoma State Department of Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education
The Food Trust
South Carolina Department of Agriculture
Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets
Virginia Department of Education
Washington State Department of Agriculture
West Virginia Department of Agriculture

Additionally, we’re thrilled to see that Hardin Public School District 17 H & 1– a former National Farm to School Network Seed Change Cohort Member, a current representative on our Native Communities Advisory Council, and one of the schools featured last year as a Native Farm to School Champion in our partnership with the Intertribal Agriculture Council – has received an Implementation grant to develop a traditional foods curriculum and build a high tunnel and greenhouse on school grounds.

New this year, USDA has also awarded two Regional Farm to Institution Grants. First Nations Development Institute, serving tribal communities in the Midwest, and Shelburne Farms, serving school districts in the Northeast, have been awarded grants to develop and deliver farm to school training, create and disseminate information on developing farm to school programs, and provide ongoing coaching and technical assistance to farm to school practitioners in their regions.

National Farm to School Network was a key leader in advocating for the creation of the USDA Farm to School Grant program, as well as advocating for additional funding for the program through appropriations bills for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 – which have allowed this year’s grants to be as substantial as they are. We know that the program is an essential tool for improving the health of our children, our food system and our local economies. And as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts continue to be a reality in our country, these benefits of farm to school are more important than ever. Congratulations, again, to the 2020 grantees – we look forward to watching your farm to school projects grow!

Advisory Board Perspectives: Anneliese Tanner

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

This post is part of National Farm to School Network's new series of interviews with members of our Advisory Board about the impacts, challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has brought about for the farm to school movement.

Name: Anneliese Tanner
Title: Executive Director, Food Service and Warehouse Operations at Austin Independent School District
Organization: Austin Independent School District
Location: Austin, Texas
First-year on the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board

Scott Bunn, NFSN Development Director, sat down with Anneliese for a conversation about how the COVID-19 emergency has impacted her work, the challenges and innovations she’s seen, and what all of this means for the future of farm to school and our food system.

“My biggest hope as a silver lining to emerge from this is universal meals for all students. We have really seen as a nation that school food service is incredibly important for feeding all students, not just those most in need. We’ve seen economic conditions quickly take hold in parts of town that you wouldn’t have guessed before.” – Anneliese Tanner

Listen to the full podcast here:

Nat'l Farm to School Network · An Interview with Anneliese Tanner

How We’re Taking Action for Racial Justice (A Start)

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Last month, in the wake of the modern-day lynching of George Floyd, we shared a statement acknowledging that we know we cannot achieve food justice if we're not willing to do racial justice work. We also shared our commitment to being an anti-racist organization and an active participant in the fight for justice. As a predominantly White-led organization, we cannot be silent allies. We must act.

As a follow up to that statement, we want to share some of the concrete, actionable ways that we will continue to deepen our commitment to being an anti-racist ally in this work:

  • We will conduct an internal racial equity assessment by the end of 2020. From that assessment, in early 2021, we will develop a racial equity action plan based on where transformational change needs to take place within our organization and our work.
  • We will build leadership capacity for our staff to take action and meaningfully engage in advancing racial equity through our work.
  • We will invest our resources in ways that prioritize and center Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. One current example: round two of our COVID-19 Relief Fund will prioritize funding for organizations that serve and are led by Black people and Indigenous people.
  • We will continue to move forward the other equity actions we committed to taking this year, shared by Helen Dombalis, our Executive Director, in January. See a list of those commitments here.

We fully acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive list – there is much more work to be done. However, we aim for these actionable steps to move us in a direction of continuing to build the foundation of our commitment to being an anti-racist organization, and from which transformational actions and goals must follow.

We share these actions in hopes that other White-led organizations – especially those who partner with us in the farm to school movement – can learn from us as an example. We valued your words of support and appreciation for Helen’s statement on Racial Justice in May. Now, we must move our words into action.

Honoring Juneteenth - Learning, Listening & Acting

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to deliver the news that the Civil War was over and that slavery had been abolished. It's important to recognize that the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, did not immediately free all enslaved people – it took more than two years for this news of freedom to reach every part of the country. Texas was the last to find out, on June 19, 1865.

While this Juneteenth celebrates the day 155 years ago that the last enslaved people in the United States learned that they were free, our country still has a long way to go towards realizing its claims of freedom and justice for all. At the National Farm to School Network, we acknowledge that racism, including anti-black racism, persists in our work and the farm to school movement at large. We have a responsibility and a commitment to correct this and to be an anti-racist organization. Our organizational vision is a food system centered on justice, and we know that we cannot achieve food justice without racial justice.

Today, Juneteenth, we honor those that can celebrate the rich history, resilience, and joy found in the Black diaspora. Today we honor those who have fought, sacrificed, and died for justice. Today we honor those who cannot celebrate because there is still work to be done.

Today we celebrate with the Black community, including our staff, Partners, Advisors and members. And to White and non-Black people of color, we ask you to spend this day with us reflecting on the history of Juneteenth, what it symbolizes, and the work that still needs to be done to correct the lasting consequences of slavery and ensure justice for all. Here are some of the articles, videos, podcasts, and resources about Black history and resilience that our staff have been digging into and reflecting on together these past few weeks, that we hope might be helpful in your work to being an anti-racist, too.

Read how
Black Communities Have Always Used Food as Protest. Amethyst Ganaway writes about how Black people in America have used food as a means of resistance, rebellion, and revolution for over 500 years. Here’s a snippet, relevant to our work in school food. "Noticing that most students didn’t eat or had never had breakfast before school, the [Black Panther Party] began to provide free meals for all students in their communities. Despite attempts to thwart the Free Breakfast Program, including police conducting raids while children ate, the government followed suit years later and began a similar program of their own." Read here.

The Hunger For Justice Series. A Growing Culture is hosting a daylong broadcast of The Hunger for Justice Series, celebrating Black voices and the fight for justice in the food system. The broadcast, which starts at 12pm ET, will be held as a live event simulcast across A Growing Culture's digital channels, with over a dozen presenters. Watch here.

Listen to Black Farmers and Scholars Talk About Resilience, Survival and Activism. Stephen Satterfield, host of the Point of Origin podcast, has two great interviews with Dr. Monica White, author of Freedom Farmers, and Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black. Listen here.

Learn about Overthrowing the Food System’s Plantation Paradigm. Ashanté Reese and Randolph Carr write about the connections between abolition, prisons and our food system. "As we continue to uplift abolitionist demands, those of us also committed to land and food work must insist on building self-determining food economies and fully commit to overturning the food system’s plantation paradigm." Read more.  

Pick a book to dig into about anti-black racism and food. Epicurious has compiled a list of books that cover the intersection of race and food, and can be helpful ways to learn about anti-Black racism in the food system. Check it out here, and find a list of Black-owned independent bookstores you can order from here.

Listening, learning and reflecting are just one part of the work White people must do in racial justice work. If learning does not propel us into action, then those efforts have no purpose. Here are several ideas of actions you can take to honor Juneteenth today, and into the future.

Join a Juneteenth event in your community, or digitally. Movement for Black Lives has an easy-to-search database on in-person and virtual events happening across the country on Juneteenth. Find an event to join here.  

Support your local bail fund. Support those protesting for racial justice by donating to your local bail fund. Bail fees further repress and cause harm to communities of color already suffering from structural racism in the legal system. During protests and their aftermath, pretrial detention is often used to suppress dissent and disrupt community organizing. Donate to your local bail fund through this list compiled by the National Bail Fund Network. (Thanks to Tides, our fiscal sponsor, for calling out this opportunity.)

Start talking. Having meaningful, and sometimes difficult, conversations with those closest to you - including family, friends, and colleagues - is essential for confronting the underlying prejudice in White communities that perpetuates racial injustice, anti-Blackness and police violence. There are many great resources available to help you have these conversations - including guides for talking to children, older students, your parents or an elder, colleagues, and advice on finding entry points for these important conversations.

NFSN Grants $45,000 to Nine Projects in First Round of COVID-19 Relief Fund

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Photo credit, left to right: Guåhan Sustainable Culture, CentroNía, Linden Tree Photography (courtesy Georgia Organics).

National Farm to School Network is pleased to announce the first round of grants awarded from our COVID-19 Relief Fund. Nine organizations will receive a $5,000 grant to support their efforts helping kids and families continue eating, growing and learning about just and sustainable food – and farmers continuing to produce and supply it – during this global pandemic.

As an organization rooted in a vision of a just food system, National Farm to School Network is committed to ensuring that the resources of our COVID-19 Relief Fund reach and impact communities that have been systematically underserved and disproportionately affected by this pandemic. This specifically includes and prioritizes Black, Indigenous, Latinx, immigrant and other communities of color. Our current food system is a legacy of exploitation and racism, and the pandemic – as well as current protests in support of Black Americans – have only further magnified the injustices that persist in the ways our country approaches food. As a grantmaker, we have a responsibility to use our resources in ways that will correct these injustices and serve those who have been underserved for too long. We are proud to be able to support the efforts of these nine organizations in meeting the urgent needs of their communities:

Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation
Brooklyn, New York
To support Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s local food distribution efforts, which includes purchasing food directly from regional distributors, New York Black farmers, and Central Brooklyn growers, and utilizing existing infrastructure to aggregate and pack farm share bags offered to families free of charge.

Washington, DC
To fund three weeks of CentroNía’s food assistance efforts, including local produce and nonperishable items, for 165 families in Washington, DC, and Takoma Park, Mayland experiencing food insecurity.

Fairfax County Public Schools, Food and Nutrition Services
Springfield, Virginia
To support Fairfax County Public Schools in purchasing local fruits and vegetables from Mid-Atlantic growers and distribute fresh produce to children and families throughout the summer; and, to help fund the expansion of a farm to school focused, home learning initiative—FCPS Grow at Home—to reach students across its 63 emergency meal sites.

Fond du Lac Ojibwe Schools - Farm to School
Nagaajiwanaang - Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Minnesota)
To purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and other locally produced and traditional food products for the Ojibwe School’s Food Program, and to support the ongoing procurement and educational activities of its farm to school efforts.

Georgia Organics
Atlanta, Georgia
To support Georgia Organics in providing fresh, local produce and educational materials to families in need while supporting local small, minority and disadvantaged farmers in Clayton County and Hall County.  

Guåhan Sustainable Culture
Barrigada, Guam
To expand the “Supporting Farmers, Sustaining Families” initiative from 100 families to 200 families per week for the next two months, which includes purchasing fresh produce from local producers and supplies like coolers and packaging materials to safely transport and distribute food.

Sprout City Farms
Denver, Colorado
To support Sprout City Farms in launching a mobile farm stand and food pantry in order to continue feeding Denver Green School students and their families, especially those that are sheltering in place and/or experiencing transportation barriers to fresh food access.

Steam Onward Inc
Accokeek, Maryland
To support Steam Onward’s FARMMACY Project, which works with youth to provide seeds, tilling services, and gardening consultation and resources free of charge to families and seniors as a way to supplement their diet with fresh vegetables and improve food security.

Santa Fe, New Mexico
To support YouthWorks’ ongoing emergency food distribution throughout northern New Mexico, its Culinary Training Program, and its support of young people growing food for the community.

The urgent need to support hunger relief efforts and local food systems goes far beyond what we have been able to support in this first round of funding. We received over $1 million in requests for support from 119 organizations during the first request period. We need your help to meet this demand.

Our COVID-19 Relief Fund is made possible by the generous support of small donors like you who share our vision of farm to school and farm to ECE programs supporting strong and just local and regional food systems that strengthen the health of all children, farms, environment, economy and communities across the country. If you’re able, please give today to help us grow our Relief Fund and support our COVID-19 response efforts. Thank you to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the many individual donors in our network for your financial support of this first round of grants.


Round two of our COVID-19 Relief Fund application is now open. Organizations that seek financial support of their efforts to connect kids and their families to just food through the support of local farmers and food systems are welcome to apply. In our commitment to standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and Native communities, where the coronavirus has had devastating impacts, organizations that directly serve and are led by Black people and Indigenous people will be prioritized in application review.

West Virginia’s COVID-19 Response Builds Long-Term Resilience for Local Food System

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Olivia Wein, NFSN Programs and Policy Intern

The landscape of food and education changed quickly when COVID-19 became an inextricable part of everyone’s lives. Communities had to shift and make drastic changes as schools and businesses closed their doors. In order to ensure children had continued access to meals, stakeholders had to rapidly and creatively adjust to the new circumstances. With the help of strong community partnerships, innovation and willingness to collaborate from the state to the local level, communities in West Virginia have made tremendous headway in not only continuing to provide meals for children across the state, but also maintaining markets for farmers, and supporting food businesses in their communities. Sector lines have started to blur as communities come together to build and leverage resiliency in their local food system.  

When businesses and schools started closing, West Virginia’s Office of Child Nutrition partnered with communities to establish 505 feeding sites across the state. The strong partnerships rooted in these communities made it possible for children and families to access bagged lunches from a variety of locations. Not only did the Office of Child Nutrition want to ensure kids were being fed, but that they maintained highly nutritious meals while continuing to source locally from producers during the pandemic.

Setting up for distribution at Madison Elementary School. Photo credit: Grow Ohio Valley

Producers sent out weekly updates of local items that were available and the Office of Child Nutrition supported coordinated delivery of those items to regional distribution sites so the products could make their way to grab and go meals. In the beginning weeks, it took a period of trial and error in order to assess the best methods of creating grab-n-go style meals while incorporating local ingredients that would withstand the holding conditions during distributions. With time and patient collaboration, school districts and producers were able to successfully meet the goals of feeding kids with local products.

While the state worked on broader distribution, local partners were building innovative collaborations and leveraging community resources, creativity, and talent to further support community members. Grow Ohio Valley (GrowOV), a community-based non-profit working to advance economic prosperity, improved health, and a better environment, partnered with West Virginia Northern Community College (WVNCC), Ohio County Schools, and local chefs to launch the Restaurant-to-School program in early weeks of the pandemic.

Staff from Sarah's on Main, local eatery in Wheeling, WV preparing meals in WV Northern Community College teaching kitchen. Photo credit: Grow Ohio Valley

The program utilized WVNCC kitchen space and equipment to allow chefs and staff from local restaurants to create meals to distribute to Ohio County students. This innovative partnership not only helped to provide local kids with nutritious meals, but also helped support local restaurants by keeping employees paid. About 75% of each meal was paid for with funding from USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), with remaining costs covered by other community partnerships. Restaurant owners have been busy preparing meals using locally-sourced fruits and vegetables and delivering meals to school sites for daily distribution. In the last few weeks, two more counties have teamed up with local restaurants to build out similar models.

As schools shift to summer feeding programs, West Virginia will continue to build on these solid partnerships and lessons learned in establishing these programs. The Office of Child Nutrition will continue to encourage and facilitate counties in maintaining relationships with local producers and implementing creative community based opportunities to reach children and families with local food. This includes providing funding to feature local products in grab and go “farmers market bags” to supplement grab and go summer meals. West Virginia has seen great program and partnership successes that will continue through the summer months. For example, two counties had partnered with a closed state park (Cacapon State Park) as a location for food distribution sites and other counties are launching on-site farmers markets at their summer feeding sites. By building on strong existing cross-sector relationships and leveraging resources and talent, from the state to the local level, West Virginia children, families, producers, and food businesses are benefiting in the immediacy while building long-term resilience in local community food systems.