Most school buildings have space that goes either unused or underutilized. That was the case at the high school and middle school buildings in the Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia. That is, until a group led by Foodservice Director Richard Kane and science teachers Peter Mecca and Jamie Lee decided about a year ago that some of the underutilized space at the schools could be put to better use.
That better use has both academic and operational benefits as the rooms now house a total of three hydroponic tables and two vertical hydroponic cultivators where students grow a variety of lettuces like butterhead, red summer crisp and red oak destined for the meal program.
Foodservice Director Richard Kane of Falls Church Schools displays some of the lettuce being grown in hydroponic beds inside the middle and high school buildings and served in the meal program. (Photo: Falls Church City Public Schools)
Last year, close to 90 pounds was harvested and sent to be consumed by the lunch crowd at the high school and middle school on sandwiches and at the salad bars.
“That was with us not really knowing what we’re doing in the first year,” Kane says. “This year we expect to get more as we get better.”
The lettuce is not free. The dining department pays the student science club the market price for the product, which in turn helps fund their activities.
“We make it sort of like a capstone project in college,” Kane says. “We buy it back from them, and this way, they get a steady stream of funds so they don’t have to do things like selling cupcakes and cookies.”
In addition to benefiting the meal program, the hydroponics has an educational purpose.
“We wanted to do it so the kids could learn about growing lettuce,” Kane explains. “They keep track of how much it grows, how high and many days and things like that.”
They found it takes about 40 days to get a harvestable crop. The harvesting is done by dining staff, who then weigh it to determine the amount to be paid.
Meanwhile, the cafeteria gets not only fresh, healthy produce but produce with an emotional connection to the school and its students.
“The students are more confident in a product that they’ve grown and it makes them [more likely] to eat healthier,” Kane says. “They’re proud of it.”
In fact, the students involved in the project have been invited to speak about it at other schools and they also recently got to go to Boston to receive a President’s Environmental Youth Award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s urban farming,” Kane says. “I believe that you can utilize space you’re not really using to grow stuff so schools don’t always have to depend on outside funds. My goal is to try to eliminate as much produce that I have to buy [as possible] and grow it ourselves.”
The next step is already in process with an aquaponics project where tilapia is being raised. The intent is to sell some of the fish to commercial concerns in town—Kane says a buyer has already been secured—and also to serve it on the school lunch line, in dishes like fish tacos.
The tilapia project hit a snag when it was realized that the initial batch the school purchased were all males, which of course prevented any increase in the population. “With fish, you can’t look at them—or at least I don’t know how to look at them—and know which is male and which female,” Kane laughs. “So we’re going back to get some females so we can breed them. That was just one real-world lesson we learned,” he philosophizes.
Another planned project—contingent on securing a grant to finance it—is the opening of a “robotic garden” that uses a sophisticated automated system called Farmbot to plant, weed, water and monitor the crops without human intervention. Kane says he is going with the automated gardening option because the optimal growing season in the Falls Church area occurs when students are out of school.
“So when I have less labor resources, I’ll have the robotic farm,” he explains. Right now, plans call for the cultivation of root vegetables like carrots as well as onions and tomatoes in the projected garden.
Other plans going forward include adding a rooftop garden to an elementary school currently undergoing renovation.
Fall Church Schools has an enrollment of around 2,800 at five sites: a high school, a middle school, two elementaries and a pre-school. The high school and middle school were withdrawn from the National School Lunch Program following passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“I didn’t believe it was meeting the needs of the [middle and high school students] after all the new regulations came out,” Kane says, “though it does meet the needs of the smaller kids.” The district’s three primary schools do remain in the program.
In the high school, “85 percent of our food is made from scratch,” Kane says proudly. The meal program includes such fare as stir-fries with fresh vegetables, chicken pot pie and food bars where students can customize dishes like burgers with a variety of toppings.
He says he is simply following the approach of concepts like Chipotle that are popular with his students.
“I look at the trends in the restaurant industry and use them in the schools because that’s what they’re used to,” he explains.