Students' Innovative Farming Feeds Fairfax County School's Food Pantry

MERRIFIELD, VA — Eighth-grader Dahlia Kassim is used to being surrounded by fish, having a pond with hundreds in her backyard. But she and other Luther Jackson Middle School classmates found out fish can contribute to something they didn’t expect: farming.

A group of eighth-grade students at Fairfax County’s Luther Jackson Middle School created a project that grows produce through vertical farming. That produce supplies the middle school’s food pantry, which serves around 70 families.

Produce is grown on vertical plastic towers via a process called hydroponics. Mark Smith, an engineering teacher and director of Luther Jackson Middle School’s ESTEEM Center, told Patch aquaponics is the combination of hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and aquaculture (growing fish and other aquatic organisms).

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That means the waste produced from fish fertilizes the plants. The plants, in turn, clean the water that goes back to the fish, he said.

Smith may know all the logistics, but he credits students with creating the idea and putting all the work into it.

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“They know more about this than I do,” Smith said. “They have no idea how sophisticated this is, because they’re just 13.”

The ESTEEM Center for Equity in Science, Technology, Engineering, English, & Math puts students who may have otherwise not had the opportunity on a path to STEM careers. Instead of testing, the center teaches students through project-based learning.

“They come into the class and choose what they’re going to do,” said Smith.

In some cases, students may focus on electronics, building things like motorbikes, drones and electronic skateboards.

The vertical farming project is just as futuristic as those electronics projects.

A few years ago, a then-eighth-grader at Luther Jackson Middle School wanted to build a farming system that would work on Mars, Smith said. That idea came to fruition, albeit in a greenhouse in the back of the Fairfax County middle school rather than on Mars.

Funding for the various parts of the process are supported by grants from Northrop Grumman, Dominion Energy and Micron Technology.

It took about two years to get the project ready, but it is now growing plants that can be grown vertically, such as spinach and lettuce.

The students say it’s a method of growing that can be replicated indoors at home without the presence of soil, bugs or pesticides.

“It’s just so easy to grow. You can grow it inside your house,” said eighth-grader Camryn Swift.

For the students, it’s also rewarding to know the produce is going to families in need through the food pantry.

“I think they are proud of ourselves that we get to feed families,” said eighth-grader Yusef Lashin.

Jenna Von Elling, the parent volunteer food pantry coordinator through the Luther Jackson Middle School PTA, around 70 families are invited to an open food pantry every other Wednesday. The food pantry is available to families with enrolled students and are facing food insecurity.

The food pantry gets food through partnerships such as Food for Neighbors, Food Rescue US and the Capital Area Food Bank as well as donors. Families receive shelf-stable foods as well as fresh foods like produce, bread and milk. Now the student-grown produce can be added to that list.

“Mr. Smith’s Jackson-grown produce will be a welcome addition to our offerings,” said Von Elling. “It’s wonderful that he is helping our students make connections between growing food and caring for their larger community.”

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Lashin hopes the vertical farming idea can spread to other Fairfax County high schools.

“We can feed a lot more people in the county,” said Lashin.

The project also inspires the involved students to think of future career opportunities.

“This project has made me realize I want to do something that will change the world,” said Swift.

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