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High School Sophomore’s Nonprofit Greening The Desert

Growing Green Uses Agrivoltaics To Fight Food Deserts In Phoenix

Photo Courtesy Growing Green

Heat swarmed over Phoenix last summer. On Tuesday, July 18, 2023, it forced the National Weather Service to post an announcement on Twitter: “Record Broken.” However, it was not the kind of record worth celebrating. The city recorded temperatures of 110 degrees or hotter for 19 days in a row, surpassing the 18 days recorded in 1974. 

Photo Courtesy City of Phoenix, AZ USA

It’s not just bad for human health, though; the food system is also at risk. Sarah Bendok, a sophomore at Phoenix Country Day School, explained in an email to Solar Power World that “a growing population coupled with our rapidly changing climate is putting pressure on energy and food production around the globe. In drylands like Arizona, drought and heat-stress force farms to use more water and energy, leading to a continuously deteriorating environment.” 

Bendok grew up going to her grandmother’s house every summer, where she would work in her garden “while observing other farmers in the community tirelessly performing back-breaking labor just to put food on the table,” she reminisced in a piece written for AgriSolar Clearinghouse. “This love for gardening continued while the images of these farmers more vividly resonated in my memory.”  

As she began volunteering at community gardens around Arizona, she continued to witness the struggles of the agricultural community, with dropping incomes, decreasing yields, and worsening environmental conditions. 

Photo Courtesy Growing Green

For example, she worked with the TigerMountain Foundation, which empowers those in South Phoenix facing a lowly ranked education system and high incarceration rates to help themselves from within by working on shared-use community gardens and incubator farms. They call their model “asset-based community development.” 

She also worked at Spaces of Opportunity, which has turned 19 acres of land in South Phoenix into rentable quarter-acre incubator farms and 5-by-50-foot community gardens that offer locals the chance to farm on a small scale. They can grow their own healthy food or sell it and turn a profit at monthly farmers markets

These experiences lit a spark in Bendok, as she saw farmers utilizing natural tools and resources like agroforestry to grow more produce.

She wanted to simultaneously help them improve their lifestyles and make the current landscape of agriculture more sustainable in their footsteps. 

“Volunteering at community gardens made me realize there is a whole story behind where our food comes from, involving people making sacrifices to feed our population,” she wrote in AgriSolar Clearinghouse. “I will never forget the smile on a farmer’s face when he harvested 10 pounds of pepper.” 

“What if I could improve his working conditions?” she continued. “What if I could decrease the number of resources he uses for agriculture so he can earn more profit? What if I could plant the seeds of a more equitable, sustainable agricultural system in South Phoenix?” 

Photo Courtesy TigerMountain Foundation

Therefore, when she was only 14, Bendok founded Growing Green to promote the technologies “at the intersection of sustainability and agriculture.” Not only does the 501(c)(3) nonprofit conduct research into these sustainable technologies, but it also aspires to implement them on farms, educate the community about them, and fundraise for projects that can use them to benefit the surrounding communities. 

Most recently, Growing Green has thrown its hat in the agrivoltaics ring. Solar panels above crops simultaneously provide shade that improves crop yield and soil quality and reduces water consumption. This arrangement also makes the panels more efficient due to increased air moisture and decreased temperatures. 

Growing Green has already worked on several agrivoltaic projects around South Phoenix. Volunteers built a system at the Desert Botanical Garden that produces food to donate to food banks and school cafeterias.

At Gardens of Tomorrow, it constructed a system whose resulting produce is donated to farmers markets associated with the TigerMountain Foundation. A second garden bed was eventually built to test different crops not yet grown under solar panels. 

The clean energy produced by these projects is used to charge farmers’ electric equipment, such as power tools. Plus, with the respective assistance of volunteers at the Desert Botanical Garden and TigerMountain employees at Gardens of Tomorrow, the nonprofit is providing community education and collecting data points. 

Currently, Growing Green is working on a 4.8 KWH project at Spaces of Opportunity. To get started on it, Bendok contacted AgriSolar Clearinghouse, which was created by the National Center for Appropriate Technology to make connections to further the field of agrivoltaics.

Accordingly, the organization welcomed her into its peer-to-peer mentoring program and put her in touch with Professor Greg Barron-Gafford, Alyssa Salazar, and post-doc student Nesrine Rouini from the University of Arizona. Bendok quickly gave them their flowers, writing that these individuals “have provided me with mentorship on the design of the agrivoltaics system and phenology data collection.” 

Photo Courtesy AgriSolar Clearinghouse

Agrisolar Clearinghouse invited her to its farm-to-table event at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, a 3.14-acre laboratory. It claims to be “the world’s largest controlled environment dedicated to understanding the impacts of climate change,” featuring ocean, rainforest, desert, wetland, and savannah biomes. There, she toured the agrivoltaics operations, met members of the Agrisolar Clearinghouse and University of Arizona teams, discussed her project with other attendees, and handed out flyers. 

At the farm-to-table dinner, not only did she eat food grown beneath the solar panels there, but she also had the chance to rub elbows with some of the biggest names in the game.

“Across from me at the dinner table was Mr. Byron Kominek, owner of Jack’s Solar Garden, the largest Agrivoltaics farm in the country,” she wrote in a blog post. As she put it to Solar Power World, “meeting with world leaders in agrivoltaics” helped her learn about different solar panel designs and how they interact with crops, which is vital information that she can now share with the community members of South Phoenix. 

Photo Courtesy Growing Green

Besides the Agrisolar Clearinghouse and University of Arizona teams, other organizations also contributed to the project. Fundusol assisted in the system’s design, figuring out what angle and how far apart the panels needed to be placed. Titan Solar Power installed the ground-mounted array, and FOR Energy contributed to managing the project. Plus, the community played an essential role: the project was made possible by $30,000 raised through donations and sponsorships. 

At the end of the day, it is the community that will benefit from the project, as she told Solar Power World. “We are helping community gardens in food deserts leverage their efforts in providing healthy food access to people who need it most by placing these systems on their land and bringing numerous benefits that will make growing crops more fruitful and efficient.” 

She has also been reaching out to low-income schools near Spaces of Opportunity to help students learn more about sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. 

However, education is a bigger part of Growing Green’s mantra than this may let on. The nonprofit operates workshops at local community gardens to teach farmers, solar developers, and anyone else interested about the power of agrivoltaics. 

Another essential part of its mission is “educating students and the community about STEM.” For example, it is working with Arizona State University’s Photovoltaic Reliability Laboratory to create a curriculum and series of workshops that 17 schools in Arizona will use and teachers from all over can learn about at the 2024 Engineering Teacher Conference. 

Photo Courtesy Growing Green

A lot is coming down the pipeline for the little nonprofit. In addition to continuing to do what it does best, it wants to expand the locations of its projects to other farms and schools, and it is even opening a new chapter in Chicago. Different types of technologies are not out of the question, with the possibility of entering composting and hydroponics partnerships. The future is certainly going to be greener with Growing Green in the mix.

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