Teens for Food Justice: Ending Food Insecurity One School at a Time

By IndyKids Reporters

Image from @teensforfoodjustice on Instagram

Have you ever experienced a farm and a school put together? IndyKids reporters interviewed Jessenia Preciado, the Far Rockaway regional coordinator at Teens for Food Justice. Teens for Food Justice fights food insecurity by growing leafy greens including lettuce, cilantro, basil, parsley, Swiss chard and bok choy in hydroponic farms located inside public schools.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity for print. To hear the full conversation, listen to our podcast, IndyKids Voices.

Farzad: Why did you join the organization?
Jessenia Preciado: I studied environmental science in college, so I’m really big in sustainability and anything that has to do with environmental work. And so, when I saw that Teens for Food Justice builds hydroponic farms inside schools—public school specifically—I was like,”That’s amazing.” I didn’t even realize there was an organization that was doing that on such a big scale in New York City. … The other thing is that I really love food and nutrition. So, for example, once the farms are built, the students are the ones that really take care of it. They really become the leaders of the farm. And once the plants are ready and they get harvested, the students will get to take them home. We also do lessons when they get to cook with the leafy greens, and I just really love that. It has both the environmental science aspect and the food and nutrition aspect mixed in, and those two things are things I feel passionate about. 

Noel: Why was TFFJ created to help end food insecurity?
Jessenia Preciado: There are a lot of areas in New York City [that] are food deserts. There are neighborhoods that when you walk around them, you don’t really see many supermarkets. You mostly see, like, maybe a deli here and there. And most of the time those delis don’t carry fresh produce, right? They have canned foods and fast food, like chips and things like that. You don’t really see a lot of leafy greens and fruits, or leafy greens and fruits that look fresh and nice. And so that’s something that Teens for Food Justice observed and wanted to address.
For example, I can talk to you about the Far Rockaway area where I’m located. In Far Rockaway, there is a lot of food insecurity. It’s a food desert, especially certain areas of it. That’s how the work over there was born. [Teens for Food Justice decided] we should get out there and build relationships with schools there so that we can build farms there and try to fill in that gap in the best way that we can. And right now we actually have two farms that are fully operating in the Far Rockaway area. And we’re going to build three more in the future. We’re already in the works of the next one.
Another thing that the students do is that they organize food distributions. They make relationships. This is something I help the students with—build[ing] relationships with the local organizations in the area to try to give away or donate those leafy greens. For example, one of the schools, they work with a nonprofit in the area that also has a food pantry. Every Monday the students harvest the leafy greens, and then the nonprofit comes to the school and picks up the bags of leafy greens. And then they donate it to the community members that go to the food pantry. So, it’s not just within the school community. We’re also doing it on the local community level.

Grace: Where else does Teens for Food Justice operate?

Jessenia Preciado: We have farms in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. We definitely want to keep growing. Fun fact: There is [also] a farm in Colorado.

Noel: Are the farms in middle schools or high schools or both?

Jessenia Preciado: Actually, one of the schools that I’m working with is an elementary school. But, yes, mostly we do focus on middle school and high school.

Aida: What is hydroponic farming? And how do you do that in a school?

Jessenia Preciado: So, the word “hydro” means water. Hydroponic farming really relies on water. We don’t use any soil at all. What’s used instead are growing substitutes, they call them. So, for example, on our farms we use something called a coco plug. It’s cylindrical and has a little hole in the middle at the top where the seeds go. So, that’s where you plant your seed right and put it inside the little hole. And the coco core has coconut fiber in it, which is so interesting. … In hydroponic farming, you use other things to substitute the soil, and the plants really, really get their nutrients from the water, and the nutrients that we put into the water. Even though the water is nice for plants, plants need something else. They need food, just like we do. We put nutrients into the water, and then the roots of the plants absorb those nutrients.

In our farms, we also have these lights to create the sun. And everything is automatic. Our farms are very modern. They have timers that really help make the farms function very efficiently.

Farzad: What plants do you grow?

Jessenia Preciado: We really focus on leafy greens because they’re easier to grow in those kinds of systems, they don’t take up as much room … [and] because they’re nutritious. So, leafy greens like lettuce, cilantro, parsley, Swiss chard, bok choy, basil.

Grace: Why work with teens versus adults?

Jessenia Preciado: We really wanted to focus on youth because we really value making sure that youth will feel empowered and prepared … that they grow up with an understanding of what food justice [is], why it’s important, how they can make a difference. And…they can really make a positive impact through what they’ve learned. We really want the youth members to be the ones to take care of the farm. And that is what happens. The youth are the ones taking ownership of the farm, everything from the planting to transplanting to harvesting. … They’re the ones that organize the food distributions. They even decide on what recipes they want to make when they have cooking demos for the classrooms or for the food distributions, and so on. 

And when we see the students take part in all of those things, right, when they carry out all those things, we really start to see how much they grow over time, and just how confident they become. And that’s something that we feel really proud about. We want them to know that they can make a difference. Again, that they’re leaders, because they really are.

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