Do you remember during those first few weeks at university when you slowly started to realise that your school was nothing like the ones your new friends went to? I do. For me, the biggest realisation was that no one else I spoke to went to a school that had a farm.

In technical terms, it was a rural science unit and it was a pretty big deal. Not only was it exciting for the students getting to do hands-on learning, the local community could also buy produce or have a family day at the farm during the school holiday’s.

When I started to think about how food security might be affecting my local community, my mind kept coming back to my funny little rural science unit and how something similar might benefit the communities around me. I am, of course, not suggesting we provide every local school with a farm; but there have been some really interesting examples of how hydroponic farming initiatives in schools – that is, growing plants without soil in a water-based nutrient system – are combating food insecurity in the Bronx, New York City. These are initiatives which, I think, could greatly improve our local food security here in South Yorkshire.

The Price Isn’t Alright: Austerity and food insecurity in South Yorkshire

Before we start talking about food insecurity, let’s establish a definition of food security which we can work with. In a 2012 article on community food security, Meenar and Hoover defined food security beyond just the presence of hunger, including both physical and economic impediments to accessing nutritious foods. This, I believe, aligns closely with what food security issues look like here in South Yorkshire.

Actually assessing food insecurity across South Yorkshire is difficult; there isn’t a lot of disaggregated data readily available on the region. However, here’s what we know about food insecurity on a national level:

Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs.

(The UN report on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK).

In order to explain why the use in food banks has increased so much, the Trussell Trust identified three primary reasons behind people’s referrals to their food banks:

(Source)

Income deprivation and welfare related issues are in line with the growing consensus that Conservative driven austerity policies over the past decade have significantly contributed to food insecurity. In particular, the changes made to welfare systems like Universal Credit, whereby applicants can be looking at delay periods of up to 12 weeks between their initial application and their first payment, leaves many families unable to put food on the table.

The understanding of austerity as a driver of food insecurity allows us to highlight potential food security issues within South Yorkshire. The South Yorkshire Community Foundation published a report in 2018 which discuses deprivation across the county based on three factors: the government mandated Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) rank, income deprivation levels and child poverty. Here are 3 key findings from the report:

  1. In terms of deprivation, South Yorkshire is worse off than 80% of comparable areas. With all four areas of the county (Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham) performing above the national average of deprivation levels.
  2. Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham experience 5% more income deprivation than the national average.
  3. 54,000 children (0-15) live in poverty in South Yorkshire.

This, I would argue, highlights that South Yorkshire is a high risk area for food insecurity, which bares the question…

What’s school go to do with it?

An aerial view of Sheffield. (Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash)

Urban agriculture is a growing global trend, intended to meet the increasing pressures placed on our existing food systems. In producing a portion of our food in urban areas, we’re able to diversify our existing food sourcing options, creating a safety-net of sorts from potential disruption to global trade and food markets.

In their 2019 report on urban agriculture in cities across the United States, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation highlighted schools as a key site for creating a ‘food system fit for the future‘. Here’s the thing – South Yorkshire isn’t exactly bustling with large cities. Mostly, we’re comprised of post-industrial towns surrounded by a blend of former mining and rural villages with lower population densities which, according to Nogeire-McRae et al., actually makes us the ideal candidate for greater self-sufficiency.

Within our towns and villages, school’s often act as centres of our community. Meaning not only can school based initiatives target issues relating to food insecurity among children, but they can also target community wide food insecurity, something already been done in the Bronx, New York City.

Teens for Food Justice in the Bronx

In Fall 2018, Brownsville Collaborative Middle School began converting a classroom into a hydroponic farming unit; by Summer 2019, East Brooklyn residents were able to buy a weeks worth of fruit and vegetable produce for $14 (around £11). This is the fourth farm set up by a largely youth driven non-profit, Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ).

Supported by an array of NGOs, local government bodies and corporations, TFFJ has successfully trained pupils across the Bronx in hydroponic farming through alternative curriculum days and after-school outreach programmes. In doing so, the project has not only tackled food insecurity within school cafeterias, but has been able to redistribute some of its annual 19,000 lbs. of produce affordably to the local community.

Give someone a meal and you feed him or her for a day. Teach young people to lead a healthy food movement and you feed a community for a lifetime!

(The Teens for Food Justice Philosophy)

TFFJ has also partnered with the American Heart Association as part of their advocacy programming, allowing students to lead initiatives for healthy produce in their local bodegas and grocers. Again, highlighting how this initiative can make real changes in local communities beyond the playground.

The method used by TFFJ, hydroponic farming, has become the leading indoor farming system across the United States. In the Artemis 2018 indoor farming report, hydroponic farming techniques were reported to require less water usage than other indoor farming systems.

The report also breaks down the costs behind hydroponic farming, highlighting labour as the largest contributor to costs. Of course, in schools this would translate into what is essentially unpaid labour, a key challenge within urban agriculture. While these are potential ethical issues to take into consideration, it’s worth noting that programmes like TFFJ are non-profit; all money made goes back into the programme. As TFFJ CEO Kathy Soll has pointed to, what matters is that TFFJ empowers pupils to become active community leaders and take control of their own food security in a time of increasing insecurity.

Can something like Teens for Food Justice really work in South Yorkshire?

Call me an optimist, but I truly do believe this kind of initiative could help improve community food security here in South Yorkshire. If there’s one thing I can attest to from growing up locally, it’s that we have a really strong sense of community. I can’t count the number of successful charity and community led projects that I’ve seen succeed in our schools, our villages and towns and here’s the good news, a lot of those initiatives are already green!

In 2014, Scott et al. published a study on what people living in deprived communities across Yorkshire & Humber thought about energy efficiency interventions. Although not related to food security, what the study did find is that these communities responded well to initiatives that might create positive perceptions of their communities. If we can showcase initiatives, like the one set out by TFFJ, as being positive representations of communities, we can easily embed these programmes into South Yorkshire schools.

A short video by TFFJ on how the programme can work in different communities.

Funding, of course, is a potential issue; school-wide hydroponic farming initiatives aren’t exactly cheap to get off the ground. But there is help available. The South Yorkshire Community Foundation, for example, has given out over £29 million in grant awards since it began 32 years ago; they also offer help on finding other sources of funding. Following the lead of TFFJ, it’s also important that these initiatives create publicity campaigns in order to attract regional and national attention to the cause. There are also plenty of cheap options to engage with hydroponic farming on much smaller scales.

In our working-class communities, it’s easy to feel disillusioned by politics, both local and national. By using hydroponic farming in schools as a tool of empowerment, we can help our youth and our communities become drivers of positive, local change and start taking local food security into our own hands.