plant_web.jpgMIAMI – Drive-by shooting survivor Brandon Allen was one of the panelists alongside celebrity chefs Jose Andrés, Ingrid Hoffmann and Adrianne Calvo. Shot in his right jugular vein last year, the Miami Northwestern Senior High School student said participating in Plant It Forward gave him direction.

“There were points in time when I felt like I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life until I saw it flash before me,” Brandon said. “When I found out about these programs we had at Miami Northwestern that I didn’t even know we had, it piqued my interest and I realized it was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

On Thursday, Oct. 17, hundreds converged on Miami Northwestern Bulls’ back lawn to kick-off the Plant It Forward program, an initiative that educates students about food sustainability, entrepreneurship and community building.

Allen also said the program kept him engaged in ways traditional studies have not.

“I feel it’s an innovative way to teach students instead of sitting around reading a book all day because I get bored to be honest. Once I started doing this, I strapped on my seat belt and am ready to ride,” said Allen.

The high school has been growing fresh fruits and vegetables, plus cultivating fish.

Donning lime green and white shirts that read “Ask Me About Aquaponics,” students beamed as they led tours of their newly unveiled gardens and state-of-the -art aquaponics lab, home of two 16-gallon tanks filled with over 250 tilapia each.

The program is an extension of The Education Effect, Florida International University’s (FIU) strategic community partnership with Miami Northwestern made possible in 2011 by a generous $1 million investment from JP Morgan Chase.

Participants ultimately hope to bring increased awareness and more affordable, healthier foods to Liberty City. “Our university is about taking responsibility to make sure that our community gets better. We see ourselves as a solution center for the community in win-win partnerships,” said FIU President Mark Rosenberg. Northwestern Principal Wallace Aristide noted the positive impact on his

students and stated that the partnership is just one of the ways the inner city school is becoming as much of a powerhouse academically as it has historically been athletically.

“When you went to Wikipedia, they talked about a drop-out factory, but today you see something very different — a graduation rate of 80 percent. We believe this January, Miami Northwestern will be that “A” school for the first time in history,” Aristide said.

The kick-off was a stop on Point of Light’s One America national volunteer tour. It featured a ribbon cutting, welcome from Aristide, remarks from dignitaries and officials, presentation of the Daily Point of Light Award to renowned international chef Jose Andrés and a panel discussion.

Andrés encouraged everyone – especially low-income families – to resist the urge to save money by eating cheap, processed food and find ways to grow their own instead.

“Try to understand the ramifications of the decisions you’re making and just how many things you’re influencing simply by what you eat,” Andrés said.

Miami Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho promised that the work done at Northwestern would be replicated through a structured proposal process.

“This is a trickle up and trickle down effect. Make no mistake about it, what’s being done here (will

continue). The public school system has a lot of land that isn’t being used and my goal is to make every inch of that land that’s not being used available to the public…to plant your gardens,” Carvalho said.

At the end of the event, students and volunteers from Hands on Miami, Hands on Broward, Chase and the local community packaged 1,000 garden bags that would be distributed to students at Holmes Elementary and other residents of Liberty City.

James Jiler, the dual enrollment instructor from FIU for Northwestern, said his students are bright, competitive and up to the challenge of making a sustainable impact through food in their community.

“There’s a rumor that in the inner city it’s not cool to be smart, but it’s just not true. I watch my students strive for the A and show off when they do really well. They compete to see whose grade is higher. I really enjoy working here,” Jiler said.