Local charter school receives gift to expand its urban farm


HOUSTON – One Sunnyside school is getting a gift that will help students cultivate food for their school and the community, using unique new farming techniques -- growing plants without dirt.

The program teaches students about healthy food choices and gives them a unique lesson in entrepreneurship.

Pro-Vision, a charter school and youth-focused organization in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, announced a $450,000 gift from the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation. The gift will help expand Pro-Vision’s Urban Farm and Aquaponics Program, which currently grows 14,000 plants for the community and its students.

The donation will allow the school to double its operations, contributing two aquaponics greenhouses for the urban farm, which is located on campus.

“With one comes many, and just like the first seed we placed in the ground, all of this has come about,” said Pro-Vision Academy’s vice president and executive board coach, Roynell Young.

"The McNair gift -- what it does for these students is a great thing. It allows them to see this whole project grow," said Danny Hernandez, the Pro-Vision business and operations manager who works directly with those students.

The 2-acre working farm aims to bring students a living lesson on how food gets to the table.

“They learn to grow produce to sell and make money, and they learn to make a living,” Hernandez said.

Instead of using soil, the process starts with a giant fish tank with water flowing in and out.

“What we do is we feed the fish, and they eat the food and produce waste for us,” said Kevin Wheeler, Pro-Vision farm technician.

That wastewater sends life directly into the media beds, where thousands of seedlings are hungry to grow.

“Our gravel media beds take out all the solids and turn the fish waste into beneficial nutrients for the plants. You can see it’s already starting to work right here with our plant starts," Wheeler said.

Coconut core, peat moss and gravel filter the water as it runs through. The plants soak up the nutrients. While those seedlings grow, the water then flows into large water rafts, where larger, more mature plants sit with the roots directly touching the water.

“As you can see, the floating rafts allow basil roots to take up all (these) nutrients," Wheeler said.

At this time, the school and its staff, along with Wheeler, are growing basil plants. The students are learning to grow, inventory, harvest and sell them. The operation also offers a solution to one of Sunnyside's greatest disparities. Sunnyside is a food desert.

“We are in a food desert, and the kids are used to eating proteins and starches, and sometimes the only green they get is when they’re at school,” Herrera said.

Some of their harvest goes to the cafeteria. However, much more of it goes back to the community.

“Our first harvest is to the senior citizens," Herrera said. "On the commercial side, we sell to HEB, local foods and a couple restaurants.”

They will also soon start supplying to a co-op.

With the $450,000 gift from the McNair Foundation, they will be able to double their operations. 

“We will double that space, and more growing spaces for the plants will increase the production,” said McNair Foundation spokesperson Kristi Cooper. "Robert and Janice are always about spreading the entrepreneurial spirit and focusing on kids. Hopefully, this will help them learn to make better food choices and help the disparity in this community."

Young said the gift will help make future plans possible and make the community stronger.

“We will be able to lift a farmers' market. That farmers' market is important because it allows for residents to be able to purchase fresh produce, and at the same time it builds community," Young said.