After they planted the first seeds in small plot of land behind Miami Northwestern High, students showed the community the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor Thursday afternoon.
The school also unveiled an aquaponics lab, with two 1,600-gallon tanks filled with tilapia, courtesy of Plant It Forward, a nonprofit that teaches students about food sustainability and entrepreneurial skills. The lab, which uses specialized filters to help grow plants, is near the garden of okra, tomatoes, and other vegetables in the back of the Liberty City campus.
“It gives other communities an opportunity to come in and see what we’re capable of doing if given the same equal playing field,” said Larry Williams, president of the school’s alumni association.
The program is part of Education Effect, a collaboration among the high school, Florida International University, and JPMorgan Chase, which gave a $1 million grant to start the program. Former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez was among the guests, noting how the program makes students more well-rounded as they prepare for college.
“The whole idea is to give young people an understanding of why education matters,” Martinez said. “They’re learning something about nutrition, they’re learning something about cooking, developing ideas about career paths.”
Liberty City is not populated by stores such as Whole Foods or Fresh Market or replete with farmers markets. José Andrés, of the Bazaar at the SLS Hotel in South Beach, and chefs Adrianne Calvo and Ingrid Hoffman were on hand to help teach the kids a thing or two about food.
Andrés — founder of World Central Kitchen, which aims to feed people in humanitarian crises — stressed that if low-income families provide for themselves through fast or processed food, “they’re killing themselves in the process of feeding themselves.”
“We cannot create an America or world where something that comes from the humble Earth or from a beautiful tree ends up more expensive than those foods that we are processing,” Andrés said.
Mike Hampton, dean of FIU’s hospitality school, noted that the labs and gardens could eventually be copied by residents.
“These small gardens can be grown on a terrace at your apartment or outside of your house,” Hampton said. “If someone’s on food stamps and they have a very limited budget to be able to shop with, now they can grow their own things to supplement their diet.’’
That’s the hope of the program and the students, like seniors Jeffrey Green and Myquan Melton, who described the growing process as “trial and error” and still developing.
“We’re hoping to set a trend for the generations to come after us. To help us plant trees and better our community,” said Melton.
Administrators hope the program will not only impact the community, but reshape the image of Northwestern. Principal Wallace Aristide said the football powerhouse may be moving from a “B” school to an “A” in January after years of underperforming academically.
“When you used to look on Wikipedia you’d see ‘dropout factory,’ ” Aristide said. “When you look now, you see a graduation rate close to 80 percent.”
Brandon Allen, a senior at the school, plans to add to that graduation rate after nearly losing his life in February 2012, when he was shot during a drive-by shooting near the school.
“I was walking home from school, I made it to about [Northwest] 64th Street, when a car pulled up on the side of me and my friends and opened fire,” said Allen.
Allen is unsure of why he was targeted, but more than a year later he’s in the Education Effect program and hoping to attend college and contribute to his neighborhood.
“I’m actively involved and I’ll spend however many hours I have to make sure that my community is fed,” said Allen.