HOWARD ? The Howard-Suamico School District is giving farm to table a new meaning by growing fresh lettuce in its classrooms.
With the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and the support of local partners, the district has 29 hydroponic garden towers that will allow students to grow fresh produce year-round, using nutrient-rich water instead of soil.
The district received a $146,000 grant from the USDA for the project — the only school district in the country to receive it. It also got $58,000 for the project from U.S. Venture and the Schmidt Family Foundation.
The district estimates that each tower will produce 25 pounds of lettuce every month, amounting to about 7,800 pounds of lettuce in the next year. That’s roughly a third of the lettuce that the district uses for its school meals each year.
With inflation and supply chain issues still affecting school food service departments, growing the lettuce at school removes some of those barriers, according to Laura Rowell, the district’s school nutrition director.
“One month it was turkeys that were a problem that we were physically not able to (get) … the next month it truly was lettuce. That did happen over the winter,” she said. “To provide a sustainable, healthy, high-quality product on a consistent basis ensures that not only the students get the nutrition they need, but then also the community of HSSD and the parents are aware that we’re … doing everything we can for their children.”
The district plans to serve 81,000 salads to students with the goal of increasing student access to freshly grown produce, cutting costs and reducing the district’s carbon footprint.
Currently, the district gets its lettuce from Arizona or as far as California. It has to be driven across the country to Brown County ? 2,000 miles away from the source.
Growing the lettuce on site will result in 5,400 fewer miles driven by delivery trucks, the district estimates.
Another bonus is that students help maintain the lettuce by testing the water’s pH levels, watering and monitoring the plants. This lets them connect their science lessons with hands-on growing and farming.
The district is implementing curriculum through all grades that covers agriculture, sustainable growing practices and hydroponics, which is a more sustainable way of producing food. Hydroponics uses up to 10 times less water than traditional agriculture, according to the National Park Service.
The project is working to get students interested in eating leafy greens, something that isn’t always the easiest task. But studies show that when kids have an active hand in growing their food, they’re more likely to eat it.
“If the students partake in making it then they want to eat it, and that’s what happens when you open (the tower garden) up,” said David Schneider, an AmeriCorps volunteer with the project. “The first thing they’re going to ask is, ‘Can I eat a piece?’ And they’ll never ask, ‘Can I have a piece of lettuce?’ at home, but they will off the tower.”
The district has partnered with the AmeriCorps Wisconsin Farm to School Program and has volunteers who helped build the garden towers and are teaching the kids about growing lettuce using hydroponics.
Danielle DuClos is a Report for America corps member who covers K-12 education for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @danielle_duclos. You can directly support her work with a tax-deductible donation at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Drive, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.
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