Archbishop Stepinac Symposium Tackles Food Insecurity

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In a special symposium last week, Archbishop Stepinac High School Honors Academy students tackled the food insecurity crisis. The livestreamed event featured student presentations on how food insecurity has impacted 56 million Americans over the past 15 months, stemming largely from the pandemic.

“Food insecurity is a problem at home and abroad,” Joseph Faix, a junior, said in his presentation during the June 10 event, the third annual symposium held by the school’s Honors Academy. “Access to nutritious food is fundamental to human health,” he added, noting “the dramatic increase in food insecurity during 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.” 

The boys’ high school is in White Plains; the forum’s focus was on Yonkers where many Stepinac students live.

The students shared their recommended solutions with a panel of City of Yonkers government officials. Organizers noted that food insecurity is defined “as the state of being in which individuals and families have no reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritional food.”

Student presentations included suggestions to increase community gardens, make better use of existing community gardens, establish more nonprofits to work with local governments and food banks (including one that the students would seek to create), harvest rainwater and explore using urban livestock. 

They also suggested making related use of vacant lots, and seeking out more best-practice methods aimed at increasing food production while minimizing the use of resources, such as vertical gardens that make better use of small spaces and require less maintenance. (A vertical garden is a technique to grow plants on a vertically suspended panel by using hydroponics, providing nutrients with or without soil.)

The unique structures can either be freestanding or attached to a wall. Vertical gardens help people grow a variety of plants for vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Other methods discussed included techniques related to the aquaponic system, aquaponic strawberries, agricultural robotics and CropProphet (crop predictions).

The presentations included related charts and graphs, such as cost variations and other implementation factors. As in the earlier symposia on the Flint Drinking Water Crisis and Climate Change, organizers noted, the students shared their multi-disciplined recommended solutions with the panel of officials from various city departments. The disciplines included engineering, law, health sciences and finance. 

The five Yonkers city officials were Lee Ellman, deputy commissioner of the Planning Department; John Liszewski, finance commissioner; Joseph Rachiele, senior professional engineer; Paul N. Summerfield, city engineer; and Rachel Kravitz, associate corporation counsel. 

Samuel Gibbs, a junior, was among the student presenters. Samuel later told Catholic New York that preparing for the presentation “challenged our critical thinking skills. Trying to use our knowledge for good, and trying to research and discuss an issue that affects so many, is really important to us.”

He added that he and his student colleagues know the importance of working to “leave the world a better place than we found it. We know food insecurity affects so many.” Fourteen students participated in the symposium, all from the junior year academy.

Vice principal Frank Portanova, who served as moderator, told CNY, “They did a fantastic job. We have to use our intellect for a greater purpose, and that’s for service; and that’s what they did last night. They used their God-given talents, and we’re very proud of that.”

Liszewski, speaking to the students, said, “People are hungry; it’s very disturbing. You’re forcing us as city officials to think outside the box. We all do appreciate the effort that you put into it.”

He and the other officials commended the students for their well-prepared presentations. They said the ideas were well thought-out and worth pursuing, even if on a limited basis. They noted some hurdles would have to be considered, such as operating costs, local zoning rules and state regulations.

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