Hydroponic Gardening in Gandul, San Juan: Growing A Solution for Food Insecurity

Project Sponsor: El Gandul Community Center and Corporación La Fondita de Jesús

Team Members: Jocelyn Hinchcliffe, Rayna Jacob, Kenneth Smith, and Brooke Struble

Project Advisors: Dr. Grant Burrier and Dr. Scott Jiusto

Project Files: 


The urban neighborhood of Gandul in San Juan struggles with food insecurity due to limited local bodegas and high grocery costs. Project sponsors Gandul Community Center and Corporación La Fondita de Jesús engaged us to develop a model hydroponic garden to provide a sustainable source of fresh produce, addressing this issue. The garden will produce food, enhance community health and hydroponics education, and community self-sufficiency. Our project analyzed food availability at local grocery stores and created the hydroponic system, an operating manual, and an educational pamphlet. The new partnership with project sponsor staff enriched our lives and underpinned project outcomes, while paving the way for future collaborations between WPI and the Gandul community.

Executive Summary:


For decades, the Puerto Rican economy has relied on the import of foreign goods, mainly from the United States, to supply the island’s daily needs. This excessive import-oriented system increases the island’s vulnerability to economic crisis and reduces its economic autonomy. Data from the American Society for Nutrition (2014) reveals that Puerto Rico only produces 18% of consumed goods, importing 82% of its food, increasing prices and making food insecurity a dilemma across the island. Combined with the effects of disinvestment and economic inequality, “food insecurity” or “food deserts” describe conditions in which an area is deprived of nutritious food whether through economic barriers, unavailability of food, lack of proper resources to access food or other injustices. Natural disasters, like Hurricane Maria, emphasize the need for more self-sufficient practices, such as investing in Puerto Rican agriculture, rather than sourcing food from elsewhere.

Figure 1: Map of Gandul area generated by student team and partners on Google MyMaps (Top). Poverty rates in the Gandul zip code area (00907) according to the 2022 U.S. Census Bureau (Bottom). 

Poverty, closely correlated with food insecurity, especially plagues the municipality of San Juan, where 26.2% of residents struggle to live at the minimum standard of living. According to anecdotal evidence from the team’s partnering organizations, Gandul struggles with poverty and food insecurity. Organizations like La Fondita de Jesus and the Gandul Community Center combat these issues by providing essential medical and educational services, distributing cooked meals and food items, and organizing programs to promote community engagement and self-sufficient lifestyle habits. To target local food insecurity, the Gandul Community Center, with support from La Fondita de Jesus, teamed with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to create a model hydroponic garden to grow fresh crops like cilantro and lettuce. 

Hydroponic gardening is a promising tool to combat food insecurity in urban areas like Gandul (Cole et al., 2023, Gumisiriza et al., 2022), and involves growing crops in nutrient-infused water rather than soil. Case studies suggest that the development of this soilless agricultural practice not only supplies healthy foods, but also encourages social capital and connectivity in the local community as residents work together to become familiar with hydroponics and to maintain the needs of the system. However, since this form of gardening is not common in Puerto Rico (Solis-Toapanta et al., 2020, Caputo et al., 2020), the team also developed hydroponic-education material to reinforce the important concepts about this modern agricultural tool. To qualitatively understand food insecurity in Gandul, the team also mapped the neighborhood for local food sources and generated a grocery brochure illustrating several aspects and insights of each store.

The goal of this project was to construct a hydroponic garden with the Gandul community to introduce a source of fresh food to El Gandul, establishing a novel partnership between Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Gandul Community Center. Additionally, the team mapped food sources to visualize food insecurity and designed educational material to increase the community’s familiarity with hydroponic gardening. 

To achieve this three-part goal, the team fulfilled the following objectives:

        1. Establish Hydroponic Garden:

    • Create a sustainable hydroponic gardening system that could be moved if necessary, maintained and recreated by the local community.

        2. Educate and Empower:

    • Provide educational resources to the community by designing a hydroponics manual and supplemental activity booklet to enhance traditional learning with interactive learning strategies.

        3. Foster Community Engagement and Partnership:

    • Engage with the community through continuous interaction and participatory design to ensure the project meets the community’s needs. 

        4. Gain Insight on Food Insecurity:

    • Locate and document details on local grocery stores to measure food insecurity in Gandul. Produce a map to visualize food sources and food insecurity.

Once on site, the team regularly met with the leaders of El Gandul Community Center and La Fondita de Jesus to strategize and construct the garden. Considering user requirements, the team deduced that a double-sided A-frame hydroponic structure following deep flow technique (DFT) was most suitable (Vega et al., 2023) because of its: 

  • Ideal shape to reduce taken space.
  • High yield potential and simplicity.
  • Unique setup.
  • Ease of collapsing for storage.
  • Replicability. 


Hydroponic Garden

The team gathered materials from local hardware and hydroponic stores with funding from the WPI 2024 Puerto Rico Project Center (PRPC). Alongside Gandul community members, the garden site was cleaned, the hydroponic frame was constructed, and the system was built and tested to ensure proper function.

In collaboration with the Gandul Community Center and Corporación La Fondita de Jesús, the team developed a functioning hydroponic system using DFT with an A-frame structure that fits up to 90 plants. The deep flow technique ensured efficient water usage and faster plant growth. T-connectors and hooks allowed for easy storage during natural disasters. The hydroponic is also sheltered by a plastic tarp, secured by a metal pop-up tent frame. All materials and tools were sourced locally to ensure future replicability and accessible maintenance. In the final weeks on site, cilantro seeds were seeded, germinated, and eventually transferred to the hydroponic frame. This is the start of an ongoing supply of produce from the frame.

The hydroponic garden provides sustainable agricultural services, allows members to learn new gardening techniques, fosters connectivity between different various generations and demographics, and serves as an outlet to improve mental health and relieve stress.

Figure 2: Collaborating with mothers of the Gandul community about the design of the hydroponic garden.


Grocery Brochure

Concurrently, the team visited several grocery stores in the Gandul neighborhood, documenting prices of common food items, food availability, and food variety. These findings were synthesized into a grocery brochure which featured a grocery map generated from Google MyMaps and Microsoft Paint. The creation of the grocery brochure was also driven by community feedback through semi-structured interviews and a focus group meeting on April 3rd, 2024 with the Gandul community. Through these interventions and participatory approach, the team gathered valuable perspectives on hydroponic gardening, food availability, dietary habits and shopping priorities. The team individually met with social workers and hydroponic gardeners at La Fondita de Jesus.

Secondly, the team developed brochures in English and Spanish to distribute to the Gandul community, listing grocery information within the local neighborhood. Food and shopping analysis tables and a grocery location map aimed to increase knowledge on accessible food availability, providing comparative information on shopping factors valued by the community. The brochures inform and promote local, cost-effective shopping, redirecting business to local stores rather than larger corporations.

The grocery brochure highlighted local grocery stores in the Gandul community and provided information about shopping factors to encourage local shopping. Mapping created from the local perspective of shopping priorities and neighborhood borders allowed for more accurate, relevant information which can inform and encourage locals to affordably shop in Gandul.


Educational Resources

Lastly, a hydroponic educational and activity manual was developed using selected information from existing manuals, anecdotal experiences from workshops, and insights from experienced hydroponic gardeners. This document was created to familiarize the community with hydroponic knowledge, providing the resources for future models. Its creation supports that the hydroponic system created at the El Gandul Community Center will be successfully maintained by the community, under the leadership of José Ramírez, the community center manager.

The final deliverable was a comprehensive hydroponics manual and activities manual for the Gandul community, aimed for both adults and youth. The combination of information and interactive activities was produced to increase familiarity with hydroponics in an engaging, hands-on way. The manual covers hydroponic construction, maintenance, health and safety, budgeting, alternative designs, and future considerations. The activities include demonstrations of hydroponic stages, recipes, and DIY hydroponic projects. With his extensive hydroponic experience and leadership at the Gandul community center, José is the perfect educator to facilitate these activities with community members. These pieces facilitate the adoption of sustainable practices and ensure that the hydroponic garden will function for many years to come.

Figure 3: Cover of the hydroponic manual (Left) and a sample shopping data table from the Gandul grocery brochure (Right). 



Close connections with members of the community, including our sponsors, and open communication through active listening and sharing ideas shaped the design of the hydroponic system and the map of Gandul. Information and excitement about the hydroponic system spread quickest through word-of-mouth, as volunteer-builders and interviewees from this project informed their families and friends. These positive experiences from workshops encouraged many residents to work on the hydroponics systems, and gave our team a deeper understanding of hydroponic systems, the impacts of food insecurity, and the connections between residents which make Gandul a community. 

As aspiring engineers and scientists, this project has allowed us to experience the process and impact of engineering beyond the classroom. From clients to colleagues, this experience has equipped the team with the skills to make fruitful change for the world outside of WPI, and enriched our lives as our memories and hearts stay with Gandul. The project team believes that the growth within the hydroponic garden symbolizes the growth of the Gandul community, along with WPI’s growth of new connections with global communities such as Gandul.