Empowering Students through Hydroponics and Horticulture

For more than a decade, the students at Charles R. Drew Transition Center (known colloquially as Drew) have been working together to provide an incredible amount of fresh produce to the Detroit community and award-winning restaurants using in-ground, hydroponic, and aquaponic growing techniques. “The Charles Drew Horticulture Program started thirteen years ago when I arrived,” says instructor Michael Craig. “I had been working in another building when my current Principal, Robert Avedisian, reached out and told me about this new program he wanted me to run. We met with the Detroit Public Schools Community District's Executive Director of School Nutrition, Betti Wiggins, and they laid out the vision of a school-based horticulture program where food would be grown on Drew’s roughly 20-acre campus. The idea was to combat the instances of childhood obesity, hypertension, and early-onset diabetes through the school lunch program while at the same time providing much-needed vocational horticulture skills for special needs students to aid the possibilities of employment.”

A teen holds up a bunch of hydroponically-grown greens in front of a large hydroponic grow area.

Drew is a post-secondary program for young people with disabilities within the Detroit Public School system, where students have access to speech, physical, and occupational therapy while learning vocational and daily living skills that lead to employment and full inclusion into community life. Thanks to Michael and his team, a number of Drew’s students have found a passion for horticulture, leading to job placements and career opportunities within the commercial growing industry.

Since that first meeting, Drew has become the site of a tremendous growing operation. “On our campus, the district's Office of School Nutrition and their staff of five produce food for the school lunch program on a two-acre open farm plot, as well as in six large high tunnels, growing food that corresponds to each lunch menu,” says Michael. “They are able to produce roughly 20,000 pounds of food annually, all consumed by students through the lunch program!” Students in the Horticulture Program assist with harvesting tomatoes and more, clearing the fields, weeding, and other tasks, and they learn how to process and clean vegetables for the school lunch program.

A group of teens and adults with their arms around each other outside in a green space.

“The other component of our program is run by myself and my two paraprofessionals, and that is the production of both in-ground and hydroponic food products for two high-end restaurants, Chartreuse and their sister restaurant Freya, and the Detroit Salsa Company,” says Michael. “The indoor hydroponic portion of our program consists of five Nutrient Film Technology systems, an Aeroponic system, an Aquaponic system, and A Fork Farm system.” Michael and his students have used the systems to grow many leafy greens, including arugula, mizuna, red and green butterhead lettuce, romaine, and pac choi. “I try to teach our students that there are many different ways to grow food, and we use as many as we can. With these systems, we are currently producing roughly 2000-3000 heads of lettuce monthly and coordinate our seeding carefully to deliver four different types of greens to the restaurants twice monthly on Fridays. The outside production of tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro is grown in a heated high tunnel with hydroponic Dutch Bucket systems, 24 soil-based beds, and 120 raised bed gardens made from 5' x 5' steel framed crates donated by partner General Motors (they used them to transport engine parts). Sixty of these beds are housed in low tunnels, so we can grow a bit longer through the early winter months. We also occasionally sell produce at Eastern Market, the country's oldest and largest Food Hub, at a stall run by our partner, Keep Growing Detroit. All proceeds from the sale of produce returns to the program to provide sustainability and the ability to expand the program.”

People wearing masks and blue gloves pack fresh greens into plastic bags and cardboard boxes.

The programming within these growing spaces is a specific and exacting curriculum that Michael developed for his students, combining Michigan’s Council for Exceptional Children's Life Centered Education Curriculum with Chicago Botanic's Horticulture for Special Needs Individuals Curriculum that features seven major areas of horticulture, the skills needed to learn them, and the accommodations that may be needed to be successful. “I created a rubric for each of the roughly 75 students in the program that can show at any given time how a student is progressing through the skills,” Michael says. “This helps teachers prepare a student's IEP (Individual Education Plan) and also will be a tool shared with community-based organizations looking to hire our students.”

An adult and a teen using a wheelchair holding a tray of greens.

The response of students has been amazing. “Students appreciate the ability to work in a program where there are tangible results (they see the food growing, they themselves plant and harvest), and they know that with an investment of work, they may end up with a job later on,” says Michael. “Absences are rare. Students are outside having fun while working, and we have tastings often, so they are familiar with the food we grow, and they enjoy working with their peers. One of my students in a motorized wheelchair has begun using a rototiller. This student remarked that the day he learned to use it was his best day ever because no other teacher thought he was capable of handling that machine.” That same student eventually dictated a letter of support for Michael’s candidacy for Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2016.

A student seated in an electric wheelchair operates a rototiller in a garden. An adult is near by.

Sustaining and expanding the Drew Horticulture Program is a labor of love for Michael and his team. While the Office of School Nutrition receives federal support to fund their farm portion of the Drew horticulture program, the work Michael and his students do to grow food for their customers does not. “Our portion of the program is totally funded by grants, corporate donations, and a portion of our school's budget that I can tap into for equipment additions. Fundraising is something I spend a lot of time on, but I can then add partners that fit our mission, which is great,” Michael says. “To that end, we have over twenty active corporate partners who support our program in different ways. Detroit is a hotbed of urban farms and gardens, and we at Drew are considered to be friends with all of them, providing support and ideas when needed.”

“In the future, we may expand the program a bit to add additional hydroponic systems. For students who use wheelchairs, these systems allow me to bring them to their level so they may participate in planting and harvesting,” says Michael. “I am also currently thinking of re-tooling our high tunnel to add more Dutch Bucket systems. With the addition of heaters last season, it would be amazing, and our clients would love it, to be able to grow tomatoes and peppers for them throughout the cold Michigan winters!”

Kids posing together in a group at the end of cement walkway in a greenhouse.