StartUpRoots: Feeding the hungry, educating, promoting sustainability


Meatless burritos, rice wraps, Chinese cabbage salad, quinoa and date balls were among the unconventional Purim dishes served at Shaarei Zion school for girls in Jerusalem’s Neve Ya’acov neighborhood this year.

The vegetarian menu was part of a larger lesson plan. The girls had learned the tradition that Queen Esther kept a vegetarian diet in the Persian palace so as to avoid non-kosher food.

And it fit well with this school’s participation in the Education and Environmental Protection ministries’ Green School Program. All year, students grew hydroponic greens and incorporated them into their diet while learning, among other things, the impact that food choices have on their bodies and the environment.

The multidisciplinary curriculum comes from StartUpRoots, a nine-year-old nonprofit working with a variety of religious schools to instill a Jewish values-focused appreciation for vegetable gardening, preserving natural resources, and promoting sustainability in school, at home, and in the community.

Educating Israel on sustainability and hydroponics

“It started as a hydroponic school gardening program to feed hungry kids in Jerusalem during a shmita (sabbatical) year. And then we decided to develop a curriculum that would build 21st-century skills and align the curriculum to Education Ministry standards and goals,” says Robin (Rivka) Katz, founder and CEO of StartUpRoots.

AT AMIT Kfar Batya, a student seeds a microgreens tray, while others set up hydroponic systems. (credit: ROBIN KATZ)

“The way I see it, you can’t really understand Torah without understanding science. So we developed a curriculum to help kids understand the world they live in through the lens of the Torah, addressing glaring omissions in the teaching of health, sustainability, and business skills in schools.”

Hydroponics was a good solution for several environmentally sound reasons: This soil-free method saves water; it doesn’t require chemical pesticides; it yields produce with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which are often missing in impoverished families’ diets; and it leaves no carbon footprint, since the greens are grown on the premises and aren’t trucked in.

This year, the Health Ministry asked Katz to expand StartUpRoots to three haredi cities with the nation’s highest diabetes rates. The curriculum includes community and leadership development elements, and it trains teachers, as well as students, in proper nutrition and environmental stewardship.

She discovered to her dismay that many children in Israel rarely eat fresh vegetables.

“I’ve had some kids look at lettuce and say, ‘Are you sure this is kosher? I’ve never seen it in my house.’ Others think that lettuce comes from the grocery store. They have no concept of the chain behind it. So we try to connect kids with the source of their food.”

Because of the schools’ tight budgets, Katz not only keeps the cost low (“We raise the money from private sources, and we charge some schools, while others cannot afford it”) but also has found creative avenues to bring enrichment activities to the students.

“American girls in their second year at the Emunah v’Omanut seminary worked with all the students of Shaarei Zion to cover graffiti at the entrance to the school with a mural of a beach scene,” she says by way of example. This activity was preceded by school-wide discussions about preserving natural resources and a school-wide vote on which nature scene they wanted to paint.

“Students in third grade received seeds of various plants and planted them in propagators and Dutch buckets so that they could sustainably grow lettuce, kale, cilantro, parsley, basil, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers,” says Katz, who made aliyah from Chicago and is a lawyer and teacher.

“The fifth grade made terrariums to better understand ecosystems; the sixth grade planted microgreens; the seventh grade grew sprouts; and the eighth grade took on the responsibility of assembling and caring for fish in an aquarium.”

All the students received biodegradable bags for Purim mishloah manot, donated by Israeli company Tipa. At the end of the year, the middle school students participated in an essay contest, writing about what they’d learned and will implement going forward. Essay writing, Katz points out, is rarely done in middle schools.

“We are now working with the home economics teacher to revamp the curriculum so that students learn how to make healthy meals within a budget, with math, science, and sustainability integrated into the curriculum,” says Katz.

StartUpRoots has been working with Shaarei Zion for the past six years, and it’s easy to see its effect on the school’s culture. The faculty switched from disposable to reusable plates and cutlery. The administration added recycling and composting areas and introduced fitness programs such as Zumba classes.

The girls were inspired to appeal to the principal, Sari Tal, about how she may be able to work with suppliers to improve the nutritional value of school lunches and reduce the use of plastic packaging.

“StartUpRoots has touched every educational activity in the school and embraced every stakeholder – students, parents, teachers and even the teachers’ families,” Tal says.

“The students were drawn to the hydroponics and were full partners in the entire process, thereby strengthening our science and health curricula, emphasizing Jewish values and laws.

“StartUpRoots also held professional workshops for the faculty to begin to integrate various subjects into experiential, whole-child teaching methods.

“We are tremendously grateful to Rivka Katz and her staff for the educational ‘green revolution’ they’ve brought to our school in ideas, attitudes, and deeds.”

Under the guidance of Katz and her two employees and cadre of volunteers, the girls planted seven trees in their schoolyard in memory of the victims of the Neve Ya’acov terrorist attack in January. They also restored a wildflower sanctuary near the school.

“One student asked, ‘Why do we have to do this? Why is it our job?’ I asked her to put a leaf in a cup of water, and half an hour later she would have her answer. After the clean-up and planned lesson, the students could see bubbles in the water. Our science coordinator, Keren Davidoff, explained that during photosynthesis, plants release oxygen – the bubbles in the water – and the tree that she planted is giving her the oxygen that she breathes,” says Katz.

She took full advantage of this teaching moment.

“I explained that in the Torah, God’s scheme is that there is this relationship between [all] living beings, and it’s our responsibility as the higher beings to take care of the lower ones. We’re living the Torah here and understanding our job in the world,” she says.

AT AMIT Kfar Batya in Ra’anana, Katz’s hometown, StartUpRoots was invited to offer an elective course on hydroponics and healthy eating as part of a health-promoting curriculum.

“Poor nutrition is not only a phenomenon at lower income levels,” Katz says. “It was shocking to see what these kids eat and drink – highly processed and full of sugar and caffeine. No wonder some of them can’t concentrate.”

As a result of the hands-on curriculum, she says, “We are watching habits change before our eyes! The kids liked learning from doing, creating healthy meals from the vegetables they grew. Next year, they want us to expand into the language arts program. The curriculum will combine health, sustainability, entrepreneurship, and English literacy.”

StartUpRoots also launched programs at Netanya’s Tamar Ariel High School and Rigler High School with the enthusiastic cooperation of the schools’ rabbi, Rav Aviram Litvak.

“Rav Aviram brought in our program first to Tamar Ariel, utilizing hydroponics to teach shmita, entrepreneurship, and life skills,” says Katz. “This past year, he brought the program to Rigler School, and the students not only learned business skills [related to selling the greens they grew] but also the rules and ethics within Jewish tradition to guide them.”

Litvak says the population served by Rigler “is at a very low socioeconomic level, and the students lack self-confidence with regard to academics and Torah observance. Through participation in the StartUpRoots program, they gained a great deal of maturity. They demonstrated an attitude of ownership for the success of growing and selling the microgreens, and they learned to be responsible to their group for fulfilling their assigned duties.”

Furthermore, says Litvak, the students’ self-image improved greatly.

“They discovered that they have abilities and strengths for success and that they can advance and dream big dreams. The students developed an understanding of ‘living Torah’ – aspects of Jewish values and laws that are applicable to everyday life.”

Katz points out that students can find information on healthful habits from other sources but need to “learn how to analyze and utilize the information in a manner consistent with the values of our heritage. Really, we are teaching thinking skills.”

She brings in experts to lead activities connected with the green school and healthy school curricula, whether it’s a master baker to make sourdough bread with the students or an agricultural academician in the field of hydroponics and infrared light.

“It’s so important that all students get these tools for life. Nobody wants to be a burden on Israeli society. Contrary to the stereotype, we find that haredi educators want their students to learn skills so long as they are consistent with their values. We seek to give them a vehicle to support themselves that is consistent with their values,” says Katz.

“We’re trying to figure out where we need to strengthen society and create the programming that will get us there.”