Ekua Hudson walks into a classroom at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast DC every Wednesday— not as a student, but as a teacher.
The public health major leads a “Frankenstein course” about food systems, food justice, and computer coding. The subjects may seem like an odd stew, but that’s Hudson’s recipe for helping to nourish the one in six children across the District who don’t have enough to eat, according to Feeding America.
Underscoring AU’s commitment to working with Washington, Hudson, CAS/BA ’24, aims to create sustainable hydroponic farming kits for DC Public Schools. Rather than their roots seeking nutrients in the soil, hydroponic crops grow from the dissolution of nutrients in the water and quicker root absorption. The process is climate controlled, less likely to attract garden pests, and doesn’t require plots of land.
Woodson High School offers space to house a prototype of the kit, in exchange for Hudson teaching the weekly course.
“This is a passion I need to fulfill,” said Hudson, who thinks, moves, and talks fast. “The joy you get from solving a problem is invigorating, especially when it’s a problem you care about.”
Hudson eventually wants to sell the curriculum and kits—which she calls the Ikea version of an autonomously operating vertical farm—to area schools. The cash flow would help offset the production costs for Hudson’s nonprofit, the Food for Thought Foundation, and the schools would receive a system to grow produce, distributed free of charge to students, teachers, and families.
She also envisions a centralized network that allows users to see what produce is available and where.
“If we can place this technology that produces food automatically without human interaction into communities, then we remove so many barriers to access of nutritious produce,” Hudson said.
The hydroponic system takes up less space than a full garden and controlled growing conditions mean less reliance on Mother Nature. Hydroponics also produce a greater plant yield and use less water.
“I’m from DC, and she’s really working to make our community better,” said Gustavo Abbott, manager of AU’s Design and Build Lab. “She deeply cares about the cause, and it’s inspiring.”
The seeds for the system were planted last year, when Hudson, a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar, visited the lab in the Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building.
Hudson asked Abbott how to build a machine for hydroponic growing. Abbott gave her the materials to learn how to use the lab—most AU community members must take a single-credit course on how to operate the equipment safely—and some tools to get started on a growing system.
Three months later, Hudson returned to the lab having cruised through the material, taught herself how to code watching hours of YouTube videos on the Arduino language, and built a small system that included a microprocessor, some jumper wires, and a water pump. She developed a system to measure pH in the soil, the results of which determine water flow.
“Do you want to work here?” an impressed Abbott asked Hudson, who now spends Fridays in the lab as a student worker, inventor, and scientist.
The time in the lab helps her get closer to the reason she visited AU’s maker space in the first place, having personally experienced inequities in food systems.
Hudson grew up in Orlando, but she spent summers with her family in Accra, Ghana. Her father became an organic farmer in the greater Accra area to help his family, including his sister, who has an autoimmune disease triggered by chemicals. Organic farming allowed him to grow pesticide-free crops for her.
That decision impacted Hudson, as did a family history of food insecurity. Her great grandmother had 15 children, and a large number of them suffered from health-related chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. She also struggled to eat enough healthy foods and witnessed the impacts of food deserts as a high school student.
“Maybe you don’t have a grocery store nearby and you’re eating from a convenience store,” Hudson said. “You may not be able to get fresh produce, and canned produce skyrockets your sodium intake. I started thinking about food, where it comes from, how we supply it, and the health impacts of it.”
Hudson’s work in the Design and Build Lab led to a prototype. It worked for five minutes before flooding. More prototypes followed.
Abbott can rattle off examples of Hudson’s enthusiasm, drive, and initiative that have guided her from curious student to inventor and entrepreneur.
In one week, Hudson taught herself 3D modeling software and how to use a 3D printer to help evolve her prototypes. Another failure pushed Hudson to design custom pieces to work for her machine.
Hudson’s team, which is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation I-CORPS program and VentureWell, has grown to nine workers who help with business plans, administrative work, and building systems. The workload is intense; Hudson’s week includes two days of classes, a day of administrative work, classroom teaching and nonprofit meetings, and prototyping. The team continues to build a replicable prototype that can be developed at scale.
“I never wanted to become an entrepreneur,” she said. “I wanted to go down the traditional path of medicine and create public health programs. But I think many solutions in America come from commercialized technology, and somebody must design those systems. Why not me?”