GRAPHIC BY NICK CLONEY
Massachusetts isn’t exactly known for its farming capabilities. Between its varied terrain, harsh winters and short growing seasons, many obstacles stand in the way of the state producing much agriculturally. But Jack Levine ‘16 is working to change that.
Levine felt that his experience in high school lacked real-world relevance. Now, his work to introduce innovative and sustainable agricultural techniques to the Brookline community through his startup Town to Table allows him to offer real-world experience to students at the high school.
Starting after Thanksgiving, Town to Table plans to take on up to 10 high school students as interns for the second semester. Student volunteers in the program would gain hands-on experience working in Town to Table’s hydroponic Freight Farm, a shipping crate modified to grow crops in a water-based medium, as opposed to a planting bed made of dirt.
Social studies teacher and Food Justice Club adviser Roger Grande explained how the key feature of hydroponics – the delivery of nutrients through water – is beneficial for the growing process.
“The key thing is that no matter how nutrients are being delivered to the plant, as long as they’re getting there, the plant is going to grow. If they are being delivered via water, then it cuts down on the lack of mobility and lack of flexibility that you have to deal with when everything is buried in dirt,” Grande said.
Levine said that the cross-country transportation that most vegetables in Massachusetts undergo reduces their quality, a problem solved by localized agriculture.
“In Massachusetts, 98 percent of our leafy greens come from California or Arizona, so pretty much every time I eat a salad, I think of it being jet-lagged, like how you feel when you get off that plane in California,” Levine said. “We’re offering districts farm-to-plate food. Within 24 hours of when we harvest it, students will be eating it.”
Grande said that one of Levine’s goals is to give students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in an environment unlike any they have encountered before.
“I think he would also like to see this programming be integrated to the Brookline public school system, and for kids to have really interesting opportunities related to learning by doing. That’s authentic learning – it’s not just learning about something, it’s learning by doing that thing,” Grande said.
Levine said he was often a difficult student to teach during his time at the high school due to his lack of engagement with traditional high school subjects.
“Funny enough, I met with Brittany Stevens recently to talk about introducing this program to some of her classes. She asked me if I remember how I used to say every single day, ‘we have to fix school,’” Levine said. “‘School doesn’t work’ was kind of one of my things, since it especially didn’t work for me. I was off the walls. I was a pain in the butt for teachers, I was crazy.”
English teacher Elon Fischer, who taught Levine’s English for Entrepreneurs class during his senior year, said that he showcased an interest in business and charting his own path while still in high school.
“He was a goofball, but he was also very interested in entrepreneurship. By the time he was a senior, he was kind of fed up with school, and was looking to do something a bit more interesting than what BHS offered,” Fischer said. “Jack felt like school was just a big game and he wasn’t very interested in playing it. Great sense of humor, really a smart kid, but he was looking for something different to do.”
Grande said he was impressed with Levine’s vision to expand his business and involve food justice.
Levine said that the goal of any partnership would be to provide students with hands-on experiences that are relevant to their future career paths.
“That’s what we want, to take this and show other students that something like this can capture their attention in a classroom. You know, there’s no right or wrong answer when you’re growing a plant. It’s just a process and it’s a process in which you’re constantly learning. To us, that’s what we should be preparing students to do,” Levine said.
Grande explained that one of the biggest benefits of Town to Table’s services is the autonomy and decision-making power that sustainable, localized agriculture offers.
“At its core, it’s about empowerment: it’s about having more control over our health, our nutrition, and our values. It’s about seeing your place in the world and taking back some of your power from people who are making choices for you,” Grande said. “People should be more focused on being thoughtful about the choices they’re making, or the choices that are being made for them.There are many powerful forces that try to shape those things and steer us into buying what they’re marketing.”
Fischer said that Levine is a great role model for how students can take things they’re passionate about and transform them into careers.
“This is just a great example of what kids can do when they find something that they care about. And I think that the more that we as a school can make these opportunities available to kids, and work hard to spark their interests in things that aren’t directly academic, the better,” Fischer said.