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12-year-old Hydroponic farmer tackles food insecurity

WXIA-TV Atlanta 2/26/2023 Christie Diez

Past the living room chess set on the way to the front door of a Gwinnett County home lives a farm and the 12-year-old who tends it.

Thanks to the 12 vertical farm stands donated by Lettuce Grow, Malon James has become Georgia’s youngest certified hydroponic farmer.

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“I grow a lot of produce here, like tomatoes, strawberries, definitely blue kale,” James explained as he showed 11Alive the vertical farm stands sitting in the foyer of his house. 

Hydroponics is a method of growing food in nutrient-rich water instead of soil. Since it doesn’t require land, it’s a good way to grow a lot of food in a small space.

Since the COVID pandemic, the Atlanta Community Food Bank has reported a 300% surge in requests for food assistance, so the 12-year-old made it his mission to be part of the solution.

“I think hydroponics is the best way to combat food insecurity,” he said. “One hydroponic can feed more than 100 people. Just one. Just imagine if you had 12. This food is healthy for you.”

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Most of what James grows, he gives away. He makes regular trips to his local food bank, the Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry, a place that prides itself on providing quality, healthy food.

“We know that some folks that don’t have enough money tend to buy calories, but, the fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, milk, those things are more expensive at the grocery store. That’s where the quality is and that is what people want to give their kids,” said Laura Drake, director of the Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry.

Before the pandemic, one in seven children in the metro was identified as food insecure. According to the Atlanta Community Food Bank, those rates have increased by about 20%.

Now, the answer to helping hungry kids could be James..

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“I just want to know how I can really help people that need it most by using farming without having to rely on seasons,” James said.

According to Drake, "he is 12 years old in his body, but in his heart and soul, he’s a full-grown man."

James is in the process of becoming a certified organic farmer. His mom says he’s working on two grants with UGA’s head of hydroponics.

Ultimately, he says he’d like to partner with a local group to put urban farms in certain neighborhoods around Atlanta. Eventually, he’d also like to move his mobile farm stands out of the foyer.

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