I took a walk this weekend through the snow-covered streets of Lincoln, Nebraska. Winter is upon us as we near the holiday season and the end of 2020. This year has come with more challenges than any I can remember in my lifetime, but just as any winter ends with the first hint of spring, there is a glimmer of new beginnings in 2021 and that is where I am headed today.
My pace quickens as I near the destination, an industrial site that has been transformed into a skatepark and afterschool meet-up for youth called The Bay. This organization is one of many that we partner with to improve out-of-school-time opportunities for youth in Nebraska. When I say we, I mean Beyond School Bells, a program of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation that serves as Nebraska’s afterschool and summer learning network, and the organization I work for as Director of Partnerships.
Beyond School Bells is one of 50 state afterschool networks with the mission to build partnerships that lead to policy and actions at the state and local level that create more quality expanded learning opportunities for Nebraska’s youth.
Simply put, we believe that learning does not and should not end after the school bell rings. ELOs don’t replace the traditional school day; they bring a second shift of caring adults and community partners to enhance learning, help students who need extra attention thrive, and enrich the experience for students who crave more than an 8am – 3pm school day can give them.
I arrive at The Bay and step into the vast parking lot to look at a now-empty space that will soon contain a 320-square foot shipping container, and within it, a world of fresh possibilities. This container is called The Greenery and it is developed by a company called Freight Farms.
Generously gifted to Beyond School Bells by the Ben Hormel Harris Foundation, The Greenery is a high-tech hydroponic farm that vertically grows over 13,000 plants at once and year round. 13,000 plants is the equivalent of a 2.5-acre farm!
While most Greenery farms are run for profit by adults, this will be one of the few in the country run entirely by youth and utilized to educate and spark career interest in future farmers and next generation entrepreneurs.
For years, Beyond School Bells has worked to develop a continuum of afterschool educational opportunities for youth across the state, most recently including the areas of gardening, environmental entrepreneurship, and sustainable agriculture. Our goal is to expose youth to hands-on and engaging activities that help them learn important skills for being successful in life and spark career interest. The Greenery takes our work to the next level.
I dust the snow off the ground and sit down to linger on this empty space, visualizing what this container farm will bring to the site, to the youth who will learn how to run it, and our community who will benefit from this sustainable model of growing food.
Youth will have the opportunity to grow and sell their food at local farmers’ markets or through weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes that we have already named “Bay Boxes” and learn the ins and outs of running a business. Local restaurants can partner with youth and their Greenery to grow specialty products for their menus. Fresh vegetables can be a constant source for The Bay’s on-site cafe and their weekly food delivery through the local food bank. Youth less interested in growing food will have an opportunity to learn the technology that makes this farm run, or the digital marketing and sales that go with promoting an enterprise.
My gaze drifts around to look at the buildings and neighborhoods that surround us. The Bay’s central location makes this a prime spot for building additional partnerships to help us realize the full educational and communal potential of this container farm coming to our state.
Already, we are working with the nearby University of Nebraska Extension and Honors Program to hire a diverse team of Freight Farm Fellows who will help us get this farm growing and are interested in high-tech ag and bringing back sustainable growing solutions to their home communities. We are in talks with a solar energy company to install solar at the site to ensure that this farm is as carbon neutral and environmentally friendly as possible. We are also forever grateful to the generosity of Olsson Associates for in-kinding their engineering expertise to help us get the site ready for the farm.
A cold wind hits my face. It is getting too cold for me to stay much longer daydreaming about this new year’s gift that is being built in Boston and will take the long journey by railroad to arrive in late February.
These days, it is not hard to get caught up in daydreams of a world outside of the challenges that 2020 has brought, a world that envisions everyone thriving, especially the youngest amongst us. I am so lucky to work for Beyond School Bells and the larger Nebraska Children organization, to build this vision from the ground up, or in the case of the Freight Farm, from seed to flower.