By Alexina Cather
Kevin Froner has been in the field of public education since 2003, when he transitioned from Wall Street, where he worked as a floor trader on the American Stock Exchange, to teach Social Studies in the New York City public school system. After eight years of teaching and directing the early college program, Kevin became principal of Manhattan Hunter Science High School in 2013. In his second year as principal Kevin received the NYC Ed Update Administrator of the Year Award for his efforts to beautify the school building, which included the expansion of the arts and the implementation of new SAT, literacy, and technology programs. Since then, Manhattan Hunter Science has emerged as one of the top public schools in America and was recently ranked 17th in the nation by Newsweek for serving high poverty populations.
Kevin hold graduate degrees from Hunter College, Teachers College-Columbia University, and is completing his doctorate at the CUNY-Graduate Center in Urban Education. His research interests include equity, teacher quality, and theories on discourse. His current pursuits include the building of a high capacity hydroponics lab, set to open in 2017, which will feed over 2,000 students daily, as well as, access to technology (specifically tablet devices for all NYC public school students).
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What motivated you to get involved with youth nutrition education and school hydroponic gardens? Was there a specific trigger or moment?
Kevin Froner (KF): From the moment I became principal in 2013 every inch of our school building went under a microscope. The guiding question was, “What environment would I want for my two daughters?” I then refused to accept anything less.
This led to new theatre and arts spaces, the renovation of all student and faculty bathrooms, an installation of filtered water stations, and the transformation of our raw concrete ceilings into a piece of art called the Spectrum of Light, named for the changing colors throughout our halls.
This building feeds over 2,000 students daily so changing the quality of food and providing meals I would feed my own daughters would be a much broader (and longer-term) project. With six schools on the Martin Luther King campus I knew that a food policy change would need to begin here at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
In response to this charge the entire school community – parents, students, and faculty- banded together to raise funds for new hydroponic systems. By the end of the fall we began growing. And then we found new places to grow….windows and hallways.
By the end of the school year we realized that while successful the hydroponics lab was producing only small quantities of food. We needed to go bigger and find better ways to grow.
Enter…Katherine Soll, CEO/Director at Teens For Food Justice. In the spring of 2016 the two of us began to envision a high capacity hydro greenhouse, which could grow 2,000 pounds per month. Next, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and the Mayor’s Director of Food Policy, Barbara Turk, jumped on board to support the project.
With the funding and space in place, the MLK campus is now preparing to offer a daily organic salad bar in the 2017-2018 school year with student “farmers” growing their own high quality food which will feed their peers (excess yields will be donated to the community).
FPC: You became the principal of Manhattan Hunter Science High School in 2013. How have you used your role to teach teens about healthy food, gardening and food justice? Can you speak briefly about your successes and your goals for the future?
KF: Recently I had the opportunity to share this project with Sam Kass, President Obama’s former Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy. On our call I suggested that if this worked here in NYC, we should replicate it in public schools throughout the nation. And why not? Why not have students grow their own food (high quality with no pesticides)? If you add solar panels to these systems you have an environmentally sound response to a changing climate, while providing a complete rethinking of school lunch and sustainability.
FPC: Can you talk about the impact that the hydroponic garden has had on students at Manhattan Hunter Science High School?
KF: Ownership. The students who stay the latest in our building are our farmers.
FPC: Your own yoga and mindfulness practice inspired you to create a dedicated mindfulness space and yoga instruction to both students and faculty. Why do you feel this is important for teens and how does it relate to healthy nutrition?
KF: The ancient Greeks understood the importance of balance. Mind, body and spirit. Schools are responsible for nurturing at least the first two components, however, most public schools focus nearly all of their resources on academic measurements, which ignore the body and the social and emotional elements which touch everything.
For instance, we now know (and have known for quite some time) that close to 90 percent of headaches are caused by dehydration. In turn, schools have not only ignored this fact, but have water fountains, which are anathema to most student bodies. To address these effects we (at MHSHS) have installed filtered stations and provide all students with clean drinking water.
Back to yoga / meditation…with the advent of Common Core and College / Career Readiness standards, students are experiencing more academic pressure than ever before, which has led to heightened anxiety and stress.
We have attempted to counter these effects by offering mindfulness and yoga to help students relax and re-center. Currently, our faculty is also offered lunchtime and after-school yoga.
FPC: How can other schools create successful hands-on educational gardening programs? Do you have specific advice for other educators who wish to improve students’ health at their schools?
KF: You can grow anywhere and everywhere. Willpower.
Ask the question: What would I want for my own kids?
FPC: How would you like to see policy help improve nutrition in schools, and access to healthy foods?
KF: Offer organic/local options for the most heavily sprayed foods, increase fresh salads, which are very popular amongst high school students, and partner with small farms in NYS.
FPC: What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for NYC? And the greatest opportunities?
KF: Willpower and vision.
If the mayor announced today that the city would require 1,000,000 pounds of fresh locally grown produce per week beginning in 2020 can you imagine how many entrepreneurs would rush to NYS and the surrounding areas to grow?
FPC: What is the one food issue you would like to see addressed by a new presidential administration?
KF: Every child deserves quality food. We don’t build second rate bombs but we feed our children second rate food simply because it is cheaper to do so. If you could choose the best military in the world or the best nutrition for our nation’s children, which would you choose?
FPC: What do you see as sources for positive change in our food system?
KF: Passionate young farmers who care about quality produce, and children who truly care about what they consume.
FPC: Finally, what do you consider to be your greatest victory as a principal thus far?
KF: Raising the funds to build a high capacity hydroponics lab where we will offer an organic salad bar daily.
Grew up in: Queens, NY
Background and Education: Kid from Queens…K-12 public schools, NYU (undergrad), Hunter College and Teachers College-Columbia (graduate education), completing my doctorate CUNY-Graduate Center – Urban Education (all but dissertation)
One word you would use to describe our food system: Bananas
Food policy hero: Gandhi (cared about the way we treat our animals)
Your breakfast this morning: Berry smoothie
Favorite food: I no longer have favorites but care about how I feel afterwards.