Classroom Hydroponics is Easier Than You Think

A chat with Fork Farms Founder and CEO Alex Tyink about hands-on learning, sustainable food, and the magic of growing your lunch with classroom hydroponics

I spent a summer volunteering for a nonprofit organization that grew food on a rooftop in Brooklyn, which then went to a food pantry in the building. They let me bring some of the extra produce home, and I noticed that my eating habits had changed. I started feeling a lot better and began to learn more about health and wellness. And it occurred to me that if you could help other people grow their own food, then they might feel better, too. At the end of the day, I think that’s still the essence of Fork Farms. We’re just trying to connect people more deeply with fresh food — to get kids and communities growing their own food but in a way that’s accessible and affordable to everybody.What got you interested in small-scale food production?

What does accessible agriculture look like?

I want people to grow food year-round and reduce as many barriers to entry as possible. Our Flex Farm is a hydroponic growing system that’s about the size of a standard refrigerator, but it can grow 20–30 pounds a month of fresh produce. It’s less expensive than soil farming, our first attempt at building farms in schools, and less intimidating for non-farmers.

Since soil farming wasn’t a good option for classrooms, I started messing around and finally figured out how to put the right type of light in the middle of the right type of reflectivity to capture the light energy and dial back the amount of water needed to achieve the same yield. So you can grow a lot of food with a small amount of energy. We’ve iterated on this concept to make the Flex Farm more user-friendly and easier to assemble, but the core technology hasn’t changed.

Why K–12 classroom hydroponics?

Bringing the Flex Farm into schools just felt like a natural thing to do. If you want to impact low-income kids and kids who don’t have access to fresh food, then school is an ideal place to reach them. I used to walk into high school classrooms in Brooklyn where students couldn’t name the cucumber I was holding because they had so little access to fresh vegetables. Schools are a place where we can address food security and the health issues of being food insecure.

On top of that, it’s a hands-on learning tool, and it’s multidisciplinary. Students don’t just learn how to grow plants. They learn about running a business, marketing, food safety, water science, and pH. We’ve written a whole curriculum around the Flex Farm — including badging programs, food safety resources, and other tools. We even have a lesson about poetry and how agriculture has influenced poets. I think food touches everything.