5N2’s hydroponic farm project cultivates hope and a greener future

by | May 30, 2024 | Community, Environment, Hunger Relief

In a nondescript standard-size container in Scarborough, Ontario, rows of lush lettuce and fragrant basil flourish in nutrient-rich water, illuminated by the gentle hum of LED lights. This compact, soil-free farm buzzes with life, defying the wintery breezes outside. In about two more weeks, over 30 pounds of greens will be harvested, some on their way to restaurants and hotels, some showing up in meals and groceries distributed to families in need in the surrounding communities. 

Taking care of the farm is the small but almighty team at 5N2, a multi-program food charity and a partner of Second Harvest that has been serving marginalized communities in Scarborough since 2013. Besides the meal program that provides over 4,200 meals every week, 5N2 also runs a pantry with staple items that they redirect to other communities through their charity partners or deliver to those with physical or mental limitations. 

The idea first came about in 2020. With support from donors and students from the Canadian summer job program, 5N2 cleaned up a rocky patch of land near their old office and started planting a variety of produce. Within a few months, the organization harvested over 800 pounds of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, zucchini and others, which they used in their meal preparation and gave out to clients. Seeing this beautiful food and how the community came together inspired founder and executive director Seema David to look into ways to grow produce all year round, regardless of seasonal patterns.   

Her curiosity led her to hydroponic farming, a method of growing plants without soil, using nutrient-rich water solutions to deliver essential nutrients directly to the roots. This system, often housed in controlled environments with LED lighting and regulated temperature and humidity, allows for year-round cultivation in urban and non-arable areas.  

What also draws her to hydroponic farming is its benefits, among which is the bountiful yield with minimal footprint on the environment. Compared to traditional farming, hydroponic methods use up to 90% less water and land area. By eliminating soil, it also reduces the risk of soil-borne diseases and pests and the need for pesticides.  

After various administrative and resource challenges, 5N2’s hydroponic farm finally went into operation late last year, growing a variety of lettuce, mustard greens and basil. The produce garnered positive responses from their partner restaurants, who take great pride in knowing their supply comes locally and 5N2’s mission to feed people experiencing food insecurity.   

Individual consumers can also shop for 5N2’s produce on their website to support their mission. Every purchase of $15 will help provide two free meals to a community member and every purchase of $50 means a family will receive two bags of groceries.  

Running the organization on a no-question-asked basis, David believes the farm offers ways for 5N2 to be self-reliant.   

“If a child comes and says to me ‘I’m hungry,’ I’m not going to ask the child and the mother why. I will give them the food first,” she said. “The farm is how we sustain this work.” 

David’s vision for the farm extends beyond mere sustenance. It also serves as an educational tool to demonstrate urban farming practices to students and community members. Already 5N2 is working on a curriculum and engaging with the University of Toronto Scarborough and Centennial College. The hope is to inspire a new generation to consider the benefits of hydroponic farming and the importance of sustainable food production. 

“That is our mission right now: educate people on healthy eating and urban farming,” David said.  

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