Hopewell Elementary School in New Jersey’s Hopewell Valley Regional School District is one of the leading schools in the country when it comes to teaching youngsters about healthy eating and where food comes from. That status was recently validated by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, which honored Hopewell Elementary with a 2018 Best in New Jersey Farm to School Award.
Among the activities for which Hopewell was cited were its decadelong outdoor school garden program, its commitment to sourcing local produce, its relationships with area farmers and, most recently, its foray into hydroponics.
That latter came about earlier this year when the school forged a partnership with Dr. Paul Gauthier, a plant physiologist at Princeton University, to install a customized indoor hydroponic vertical garden at Hopewell. The garden is planted, maintained and harvested by Hopewell students, who then enjoy the fruits (and veggies and herbs) of their labors in the cafeteria.
Those onsite-produced ingredients include various lettuces, kale, spinach, bok choy, lunchbox peppers, strawberries and various herbs like basil, cilantro and dill. Meanwhile, the activities surrounding the vertical garden’s cultivation reinforce and enhance the school’s academic mission.
“I was taking a course on oceans and climate at Princeton over the summer for professional development, and Dr. Gauthier came in and said, ‘Hey, anyone want to see the vertical gardening initiative we’ve started here at Princeton?’” recalls Helen Corveleyn, 5th grade STEM teacher at Hopewell Elementary, on the genesis of the Princeton partnership. “[Hopewell Principal] David [Friedrich] and I had been looking for a while for a solution to getting into hydroponics and redoing our greenhouse, which is about 30 years old. So, when I saw what Dr. Gauthier had at Princeton in this space that was just a little larger than a closet, it spoke to what vertical gardening is, and I said to David, ‘I found who we need to talk to.”
The school had already secured some $25,000 in grant funding—from sources ranging from the New Jersey Education Association and BASF Corp. to Sustainable Jersey, the Hopewell Valley Educational Foundation and the school’s own PTO—but was reluctant to pour it into trying to revive such an antiquated facility as the greenhouse.
Corveleyn says Gauthier was “unbelievably generous with his time,” traveling to Hopewell to assist and answer questions.
“I think he’s quite proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here,” Friedrich observes.
Hopewell was the first school Gauthier worked with on the hydroponic system, but he’s now also working with several others, such as the Princeton and Trenton Public Schools.
“We’re probably the farthest along and have the largest system,” Corveleyn notes, “but he’s really looking to see how far he can spread this and how many children he can affect.”
“When other districts show interest, we try to provide that support, just like we benefitted from ourselves,” Friedrich adds.
Hopewell Elementary’s three multilevel hydroponic towers are in a room just off the cafeteria and “the goal is to use all the produce that we grow there in the cafeteria,” Friedrich says. “We sit down with the food director once a month to develop a menu.”
Hopewell’s school meal program is managed by Pomptonian, a New Jersey-based FM Top 50 foodservice management company that specializes in the K-12 market and has a program of offering optional organic meals at select sites.
At Hopewell, Pomptonian had been serving organic-based housemade lunches for the past four years, originally just once a week, but now upped to three times a week due to its popularity, which has now been enhanced further by the use of ingredients from the onsite gardens.
“The kids love any kind of Latin type of fare, so we have burritos, salsas and street tacos that lend themselves nicely to the cilantro [grown in the hydroponic garden],” Corveleyn notes. Hydroponically grown herbs are also used to make various salad dressings, the basil is used to make pesto and the greens are incorporated into salads served as sides to the organic-based dishes. They are also blended into green smoothies in combination with frozen fruits like pineapple.
Other fruits and herbs are used to flavor water, which has been introduced to compensate for the removal of plastic bottle beverages (along with plastic straws) from the cafeteria.
Other sustainability efforts being introduced at Hopewell include vermiculture, which will be used to dispose organically of food waste.
Both the indoor hydroponic gardens and the outdoor garden serve as sources of fresh ingredients for the meal program and as hands-on instructional tools for the academic program as all students participate in some way in their maintenance and cultivation.
The outdoor garden has a dozen beds and serves as both an open-air classroom and as a practical example of what can be done by students and their families at home.
“While hydroponic [production] is great, you have to make sure it’s juxtaposed with traditional gardening” that can be emulated at home, Friedrich offers, adding that that is one reason the greenhouse has been abandoned. “If you want a sustainable model that any family can adopt, a greenhouse just isn’t that practical,” he says.
Hopewell Elementary is a pre-K-to-5 school with an enrollment of around 440.