Agriculture, Education, and Advocacy: Teens for Food Justice Offers a Recipe for Success

December 26, 2023

By Natalie Wright | December 25, 2023

Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ) is a New York City based organization working to combat food insecurity and diet-related diseases through youth-led hydroponic farming in schools. TFFJ involves students in STEM education to cultivate sustainable fruits and vegetables on campus to help transform food landscapes and empower young leaders in their communities.

At the organization’s new Far Rockaway educational campus, TFFJ is focused on expanding its reach. The campus hosts four co-located schools, including three high schools and a middle school. The campus recently received a U.S. Department of Education Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production Grant (USDA UAIP), making it the first federally funded TFFJ project.

The site features a soil garden developed in collaboration with GrowNYC and strategically planned by the campus. This garden is designed to generate extra produce throughout the outdoor growing season.

“The Far Rockaways is an isolated area with really complicated metrics in regards to food access, transportation access, and secondary education opportunities,” TFFJ Chief Executive Officer and Founder Katherine Soll tells Food Tank. “The idea was to build a school based farm hub where students are able to change what they see fit within their own community.”

The project uses a place-making approach, connecting the farm hub to local community gardens and food pantry distribution. Their ultimate goal is to accelerate workforce opportunities, demonstrated through partnerships with the on-site school-based culinary program. Additionally, the project collaborates with the campus’ Career and Technical Education programs in Urban Agriculture and Culinary Arts.

The organization sees this progress in Far Rockaway as an exciting opportunity, allowing them to build on the successes they have seen across New York City. Through STEM classes, afterschool programming, and school-based internships, all TFFJ students learn how to build and run all aspects of a school-based farm. The students grow hydroponic produce inside their Title I schools– public schools that receive federal education program funding to support low-income students– all while assuming roles as educators, mentors, and advocates.

Each TFFJ farm grows up to 4,536 kilograms of food annually. Their impact extends to 19 schools and 7,900 students, totaling 20,412 kilograms of student-grown produce distributed per year. The fresh crops are offered in the school’s cafeterias and distributed free and affordably within local food desert communities.

TFFJ also relies on a wide network of organizations—including Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, and Queens Defenders— to distribute the food they grow. The organization hopes to continue building on these relationships to expand workforce development and employment opportunities. Already offering paid internships to over 60 students and connecting with the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, TFFJ hopes to enhance its career and technical education track.

“This year and moving forward we are building an extremely intentional workforce development program that is wrap-around. We are working to create more opportunities for students as they get older within our program to take on more responsibility and to connect them with more industry partners,” says Soll.

Even as the organization grows and adjusts to the needs of communities, TFFJ plans to continue centering the experiences of students— a commitment that TFFJ Senior Farmer-Educator Alyssa Gardner-Vazquez has witnessed for years.

“I grew up in the program. I met a community of people who were just like me and cared about plants and growing food,” Gardner-Vazquez, who was also an original TFFJ student, tells Food Tank, “And now [as an educator] I get into the real problems with the high schools and learn along with them.”

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Photo courtesy of Teens for Food Justice

Find the original piece on Food Tank.

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