Kids that care about sustainable eating want to know where the ingredients in their food were grown. At New Hampshire schools in Dover and Hampstead, kids that want to know where the basil on their pizza or the greens in their salad were grown need to look no further than the hydroponic grow cart in the cafeteria.
In partnership with Vermont Hydroponics and the Dover and Hampstead public school districts, Café Services (Fresh Picks Café’s parent company) brought the hydroponic garden cart to the schools in October. The goal is twofold: Promote local eating and enhance curricula.
“We were successful last year integrating the carts into our cafeteria programs in the Springfield and Rutland, Vermont school districts,” says Chris Faro, Fresh Picks Café Director of Operations. “In Dover and Hampstead, we’re building models to tie hydroponic gardening into the curriculum.”
Standing over six feet tall and five feet wide, the three-tiered tower carts are mostly self-sustaining. Cafe Services Project Manager, Chris Barnes, visits the schools weekly to ensure soil PH counts are at levels for healthy growth. Lit by LEDS for photosynthesis and irrigated by pumps to channel nutrient-rich water to plants, the carts grow lettuce, mixed greens and a variety of herbs.
“We grow a lot of basil because it has a fast turn time and there are so many uses for it,” says Fresh Picks Café food service director in Hampstead, Joe Monroe.
At Hampstead Middle School, the hydroponic grow cart is more than just a conversation starter on food sustainability; it’s also a hands-on teaching tool in science and industrial arts class.
Students tend the garden, separating plants as they grow and managing the harvest. Industrial arts students are preparing a slide presentation on farming and sustainable practices to show during lunch on the flat-screen TV in the cafeteria. In science class, plants from the cart are used in color extraction experiments.
Monroe says the cart’s three tiers help students learn about the growth progression. “It’s intended to provoke questions, not just be looked at,” he says.
Students also learn about the environmental and cost benefits of hydroponic gardens. They recycle water, using about a tenth of the water of a conventional garden, according to Vermont Hydroponics grower Grant Jakubowski, quoted in the November 14, 2015 Rutland Herald. Because plants are stacked on top of one another, hydroponic gardens also save space.
But for kids, the biggest advantage is the satisfaction of eating fresh food grown right before their eyes — like fresh basil oil at the salad bar, pesto Alfredo sauce on pasta and basil aioli at the deli.
Says Monroe, “They can see it. They can eat it. And they say, ‘Wow, we grew this at our school.’”