Posted inEnvironmental

From spelling bee finalist to urban farmer, Fort Worth student takes on environmental challenges

Maitri Kovuru, a rising senior at Paschal High School, spends her free time balancing multiple hobbies. 

Sometimes the former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist unicycles. Other times, she writes confessional poetry. When she’s not doing either, she puts on her environmental hat to fight for sustainability. 

The 17-year-old already co-authored a study on mercury concentrations in turtles from the Trinity and Brazos Rivers in March. And now, the rising senior is the student ambassador for Opal’s Farm, a nonprofit run by Unity Unlimited, Inc

She’s on a quest to educate community members on farming and the environment. Above all, Maitri is trying to stress the urgent need for people to take care of their community.

“We’re getting to a point of urgency where we have to continue acting in ways that are better for the Earth. Otherwise, we might reach a tipping point,” Maitri said. 

Her latest mission is to represent the farm at the Growing Healthy Communities Conference at Fort Worth Botanic Garden on July 16. There, she’ll showcase the work the farm is doing to promote regenerative agriculture. 

In August, she will head to Tucson, Arizona, to present her turtle research at the 20th annual symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Paschal is home to the Trinity River Turtle Survey, an innovative research project that brings students to the river each month to catch, mark, measure and release turtles back into the water.

Maitri’s activism began in sixth grade, when she started to pay more attention to the environment. Over the following years, through environmental science classes and reading the news on natural disasters, she learned the importance of recycling and how agriculture plays a vital role in sustainability.

Regenerative agriculture is the idea that farming and ranching nourishes both the people and the Earth. These methods can restore soil and the ecosystem, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for clean air, water and healthy communities.

Food is a connection between people and their culture and more importantly, essential for human lives, Maitri said. 

“If we can properly nourish our connection to the land through agriculture, I think that would do a lot of good toward how we can survive on Earth,” she said.

But her advocacy for the environment is not limited to just agriculture and animals. One way she promotes sustainability is through changing her family’s recycling and waste management habits. Poorly managed waste serves as a breeding ground for disease and generates methane that contributes to climate change, according to a World Bank report.

Her mother, Neena Kovuru, said the family did not separate recyclable products from their trash. But once Maitri embarked on her journey as an environmentalist, she lectured her family on the importance of recycling and insisted them to practice waste segregation.

“Initially, it was very difficult. It gets very annoying sometimes because she will just harp on it all the time,” Neena said. “I’m still annoyed, but I know she’s right. Part of it is learning to adapt because I know she’s doing this for a bigger cause.”

A tomato grows on Opal’s Farm on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Chongyang Zhang | Fort Worth Report)

Sprouting as a leader on Opal’s Farm

After a few volunteering sessions at Opal’s Farm, Maitri reached out to Gregory Joel, the farm’s manager, and offered to do local community outreach to give presentations about the farm’s work and the importance of the environment. 

Joel thought it was a great idea because her age makes her more relatable with the younger generation.

“I’m 63 years old. You know, in high school, they don’t want to listen to me, right?” Joel said. “But they’re more likely to listen to their peers. It’s a golden opportunity to really teach because a lot of young people don’t have any idea where their food comes from.”

Maitri became the student ambassador at Opal’s Farm earlier this year. She has spoken with students at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy and I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA and with potential business investors who went to the farm recently. 

Opal Lee, known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, established the farm in 2019 to combat food deserts in Fort Worth. The urban farm grows fresh produce. The staff donates about 10% of the farm’s produce to community members. They then take half of what remains to sell at farmers’ markets around the city, Joel said. The rest is sold at discounted prices in lower income neighborhoods where fresh produce is often scarce.

Food deserts are located in neighborhoods that are not accessible to fresh, healthy food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has two criteria for an area to be considered a food desert: 

  • The poverty rate must be 20% or higher, or the median household income must be at or below 80% of the median household income for the region.
  • At least 500 people and/or at least 33% of the households must live more than a half-mile from a large grocery store or supermarket in urban areas.

People who live in food deserts rely on convenience stores that generally provide unhealthy, processed foods, according to the Tarrant County Food Desert Project

Just south of Opal’s Farm is Fort Worth’s 76104 ZIP code, an area that has the lowest life expectancy rate in Texas, according to a University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study. The 76104 ZIP code is a majority-minority area. The area is 44% Hispanic and 33% Black. Meanwhile, 39.4% of residents fall below the poverty line, double the statewide rate of 14.2%, according to census data

Those numbers tell a deeper story for the manager of Opal’s Farm. 

“Food desert is really food apartheid. It’s very intentional and these neighborhoods tend to be lower income and (occupied by) people of color,” Joel said.

The farm is currently working to start a program with Tarleton State University to help individuals who were previously incarcerated. The program would provide them with a certificate to bring their careers in farming with the goal of keeping people out of jail and providing a sense of dignity, Joel said.

“People, a lot of times, will think life is over because of bad choices,” said Joel, who was also incarcerated in the past. “I made some bad choices, but there’s always a way to turn those things around when you have people to support you and believe in you. And that’s what we want to do for these guys coming out.”

While the logistics of the program is still underway, the farm continues to educate people on its farming effort. And Maitri is on the front line.

Maitri is one of the young people who is aware of the environmental crisis and appreciates regenerative agriculture, Joel said. 

“Maitri has done really well at representing the importance of our regenerative agriculture, and the way that we fight food insecurity by providing food to the neighborhood,” he said. 

Maitri Kovuru stands for a photo with Jacques Bailly, pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Courtesy of Neena Kovuru)

An unexpected wordsmith 

Being the youngest child in the family, Neena said Maitri was pampered growing up. Maitri disliked reading and always asked someone in the family to read her bedtime stories, Neena said. So when Maitri made it to the final of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition, Neena was surprised. 

“It was so crazy that she went from people reading to her, to go to the National Spelling Bee,” Neena said. “That’s something I could have never imagined in my life.” 

But Maitri’s journey to the National Spelling Bee competition was a family effort. Her grandmother coached her in the beginning. She trained in memorizing words and recognizing the language pattern of English. She read books and learned about the language’s rules.

“But obviously there’s a lot of exceptions because English also takes words that have moved through multiple languages,” Maitri said. 

As she advanced through the competition, her mother took over as coach when words became more complicated, Maitri said. When she had trouble remembering how to spell a certain word, her mother would make up stories around that word so Maitri could remember its spelling.

Chamaelirium. That was a word Maitri had trouble spelling. Neena told her that it is just three words put together — Chameleon, maelstrom and delirium. And it worked, Maitri said. She still remembers its spelling to this day. 

Maitri’s love for the written word has transferred over to writing. She hopes to publish a collection of confessional poetry by the end of her college years. The rising senior is considering a number of colleges around the country, but she’s keeping the specifics of her list a secret. 

Whenever Maitri isn’t busy with her hobbies and classwork, she spends time watching television. Recently, the 17-year-old got back into watching her favorite cartoon, “Ben 10,” a show about a young boy who has a watch that allows him to transform into superpowered aliens. 

Her favorite alien is Alien X because it’s the most powerful alien whose powers allow him to do anything.

“If I was that alien, then I could solve so many world problems,” she said. “You could solve climate change. You could probably solve food insecurity. I don’t know what the logistics of the alien is because it is a kids’ show, but it seems that way.”

Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at or via Twitter

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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