Food Tech for the Future: Growing Digital Farmers

Using the intersection of sustainability and technology through a hands-on Food Computer program to expand accessibility to healthy produce

Photo of Nikita Bharati
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Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Instagram: @girlstempowerment & @azsustainabilityalliance Twitter: @AzSustain Facebook: Arizona Sustainability Alliance

Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The Sustainable Food Systems Priority of the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Arizona Sustainability Alliance (AZSA) works on empowering low-income communities and creating equitable, affordable food access throughout Arizona. Food insecurity is a problem that spans numerous communities, and in 2017 alone, an “estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 40 million Americans including more than 12 million children” (USDA).

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

This project is Arizona’s first Food Computer program called “Food Tech for the Future: Growing Digital Farmers”, in which low-income students from all over the state are given the opportunity to build “Food Computers”, which are tabletop-sized, controlled environment agriculture technology platforms that use robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber. Volunteers within the Priority first build one food computer that will act as a display computer for each new high school we implement our project in. After students at that high school learn the science and engineering concepts behind the computer and its application to environmental science and sustainable agriculture, students participate in hands-on activities by building their own. Throughout the rest of the year, students are given work to grow different plants in their personalized Food Computers and conduct experiments with the various sensors and programming of the computer. By introducing them to our project, these students are given the opportunity to experience an innovative program that links STEM experiences to food-growing environmental education.

3. Using STEM as a force of good: Please specify how are you using STEM to solve for an environmental challenge you are passionate about.

Food deserts are defined by the USDA as being low-income neighborhoods that lack access to affordable produce. There are a staggering number of these food deserts that exist within my county of residence. This is not only a matter of sustainability but also of social justice, for access to healthy food should not be dependent on your income or zip code. This project is able to address these issues, as well as empower these students in the field of STEM through our project being the first-ever agritech education platform in Arizona, helping increase student’s access to education about sustainability and technology. The Food Computers that are central to our project are run with Raspberry Pi, which is a credit sized computer that is coded with Python, and it is attached to different sensors in the computer. When building the computer, students learn all about coding and technology when programming the Raspberry Pi, developing the sensors in the computer, and more. Beyond the technical side, participating students also conduct experiments year-round on the Food Computers, ranging from optimizing growing conditions within the chamber for plants, to growing new types of vegetables.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

Throughout my childhood, I frequented trips to India, often to visit close relatives and their hometown. I regularly noticed the poor conditions they lived in, ranging from the scorching summer days, to times when my relatives would struggle financially due to heavy monsoon seasons damaging their crops, the main source of their income. Looking back, I never fully grasped the environmental crises my family faced, so I decided to research these issues further, and was also later devastated to learn about their magnitude when I took an AP Environmental Science course in high school. My great fear of how these issues would go on to impact my generation and those to come became a call for change. Combining my passion for sustainability and STEM inspired me to work on this project and empower others in every situation imaginable.

5. Video (Keep it simple, a video made on a hand-held phone is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

To date, the Food Tech for the Future Project has implemented the program at high schools such as Glendale High School, Basha High School, and the and the entire Alhambra Elementary School District, impacting over 800 students and faculty. To bring our project to where it is today, key activities I have contributed to include writing numerous grant applications, helping lead Food Computer builds and meetings, expanding outreach to more schools, and more.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Currently, there are no other Food Computer programs in the state of Arizona. Though there is one other Food Computer program in the country, our program, Food Tech for the Future: Growing Digital Farmers, is unique in that it focuses on impacting low-income students located in food deserts. Additionally, our programming is unique in that our program provides the students access to healthy produce as well as free environmental science and computer science education.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made?

Since January 2019, Food Tech for the Future has implemented a total of 12 Food Computers statewide at numerous low-income high schools. In total, our Priority has raised almost $20,000 for this project through grants from Microsoft, COX Communications, Vital Voices Global Partnership, Ascena Retail Group Inc., and more. The impact of the Food Computer project was evaluated through pre- and post- surveys administered to the 870 participating students and teachers. The surveys revealed that students were positively impacted by the program and advanced their knowledge in a variety of STEM concepts. The following are notable results from the surveys: 54.8% increase in knowledge of sustainability concepts, 71.4% increase in ability to identify sustainable desert agriculture, and 83.3% increase in ability to describe the technology used to run a food computer.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Outside of the Sustainable Food Systems Priority, I am the CEO and Co-Founder of a non-profit organization called Girl STEMpowerment. Positively impacting girls through our 20 chapters around the world, Girl STEMpowerment focuses on empowering young women and mitigating the gender gap in STEM through free STEM-based workshops, events, and community projects. To further empower marginalized groups in STEM, Girl STEMpowerment will be partnering with the Sustainable Food Systems Priority to expand the Food Computer program to their chapters next school year. This aspect of the program will focus on the idea of empowering young girls in STEM while teaching them about the intersection of environmental science and technology.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

When working with participating students through our Food Computer program, it is an absolutely amazing experience and feeling. From working with Tearsa Saffell (Our amazing adult sponsor!) and high school volunteers to build display Food Computers, to teaching participating students about the environmental science behind the Computer, there is not a better feeling. These students unlock new passions for STEM and sustainability, and getting to be a part of their growth is irreplaceable.

11. Please share ideas of how you can partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

I see the Ashoka Changemakers platform as an opportunity for me to unlock my full leadership potential to continue helping address local issues, all while establishing a strong sense of community. If selected, I would work with other changemakers to potentially combine ideas and create new ventures that can expand youth outreach in our respective communities. This can be over various platforms such as social media, in-person, and more!

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

Look back at a time when you maybe missed a meal or skipped a snack. You may have felt some physical pain, but real hunger—hunger on a global scale—goes beyond a rumbling stomach or hunger pang. It’s a symptom of a broken global food system. Closely related is the current state of global food insecurity. Now, imagine if you could help fight this issue while also providing students with access to environmental science and technology education? Food Tech for the Future does exactly that!

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $100-$1k
  • Donations between $1k-$5k
  • Donations over $10k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Search engine

Evaluation results

12 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 83.3%

Probably - 16.7%

Maybe - 0%

Probably not - 0%

No - 0%

2. CONNECTION to Environmental Sustainability

5 - Absolutely! It is totally clear that the solution is contributing directly to environmental sustainability and/or addressing climate change - 83.3%

4 — Yes, it establishes a connection to environment/ climate change but could be stronger - 16.7%

3 — Somewhat, the entry speaks to this environmental sustainability, but the direct impact is not well established - 0%

2 — Not really, the connection to environment/ climate is very weak - 0%

1 — No. The entry does not have a reference the solution’s impact on environment and/or climate change - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%

3. Is this entry CREATIVE?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 83.3%

4 - Yes, I think so - 8.3%

3 - Maybe - 0%

2 - Probably not. - 0%

1 - No - 8.3%

No Answer - 0%

4. Does this entry demonstrate a COMMITMENT to changemaking?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 100%

4 - Yes, I think so - 20%

3 - Maybe - 10%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Does this entry value CHANGEMAKING through collaboration with other stakeholders in its approach?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 91.7%

4 - Yes, I think so - 0%

3 - Maybe - 8.3%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

6. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 60%

4- Yes, I think so - 30%

3- Maybe - 10%

2- Probably not - 0%

1- No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: What are the strengths of this project?

CONNECTION: You have a great understanding and personal connection to the problem - 100%

CREATIVITY: You have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions to aid environmental sustainability/combat climate change - 90%

COMMITMENT: You have a thoughtful plan for growing your business, and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 100%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: You value thinking around how to activate other changemakers and empower them to care about your cause. You also have a clearly defined plan on how to collaborate across multiple stakeholders - 90%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 90%

VIABLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 80%

Other option - 0%

8. FEEDBACK: What are some areas for improvement for this project?

CONNECTION: Why you care about the environment/ climate was unclear – It would be great to elaborate on what this solution means to you, personally and how it affects you and/or your community. - 0%

CREATIVITY: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 14.3%

COMMITMENT: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 0%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming. How will they care about environment/climate if they currently do not? Think about how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 14.3%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 0%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 28.6%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 100%

Other option - 0%

Attachments (1)

AZSA Letter of Support.pdf

This is a Letter of Support for this project from the Arizona Sustainability Alliance. If selected as a winner of this challenge, the funding will go towards further expanding the Food Computer program through Girl STEMpowerment, and this letter supports that decision and our work.


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