Nutrition services utilize HS greenhouses for garden-fresh produce

September 9, 2019

Cypress Woods High School grew more than 500 pounds of romaine lettuce during the 2018-2019 school year using hydroponic technology. The lettuce grown in the greenhouse was used in Cypress Woods’ cafeteria, replacing traditionally grown lettuce.
Cypress Woods High School grew more than 500 pounds of romaine lettuce during the 2018-2019 school year using hydroponic technology. The lettuce grown in the greenhouse was used in Cypress Woods’ cafeteria, replacing traditionally grown lettuce.

Sept. 9, 2019—The CFISD nutrition services department is responsible for feeding approximately 80,000 students every day, and with that responsibility comes a continual demand for large quantities of food. In an effort to enhance the supply of fresh produce, the nutrition services team devised a plan to source it locally via high school greenhouses.

The team brought the plan to district partners Slow Food USA and the Whole Kids Foundation, who noted that CFISD serves a large amount of romaine lettuce in its cafeterias. Their recommendation was for the district to grow its own lettuce using a hydroponic system—a soilless growing method using a specific combination of nutrients to help plants grow only using water.

Knowing that the Cypress Woods High School greenhouse had available space and the proper equipment, Emmy Durand, coordinator of nutrition education, put the plan into action. She contacted Kyle Atkins, Cypress Woods agriculture science teacher, about preparing the greenhouse for a hydroponic test grow.

“We transformed the greenhouse from how it looked when I arrived three years ago,” Atkins said. “Now we use it to grow local produce for our school’s cafeteria.”

Growing produce using hydroponics is different than growing produce in soil. First, seeds are planted in water-absorbent “plugs” that then go into a nursery until the seeds germinate. After germination, the plugs are moved into the greenhouse where they are placed in gutters that constantly have water running underneath them. The water, which contains nutrients conductive to plant growth, allows the produce to grow to full size in the gutters.

Growing produce using hydroponic technology requires plants to grow in absorbent “plugs” that are then placed in gutters, pictured here. Water runs underneath the gutters supplying the plants with the proper nutrients needed to grow.
Growing produce using hydroponic technology requires plants to grow in absorbent “plugs” that are then placed in gutters, pictured here. Water runs underneath the gutters supplying the plants with the proper nutrients needed to grow.

After a year of growing romaine lettuce at Cypress Woods, Durand and her team expanded the program to Cypress Springs High School to help utilize their greenhouse.

“We had success at Cy Woods and proved our ability to actually produce food using hydroponic technology,” Durand said. “Cy Springs had an empty greenhouse and we had vertical equipment from Cy Woods that would be an easy plug-and-play installation.”  

Atkins saw the success of using hydroponics during the 2018-2019 school year, and believes using the greenhouse has a broader impact than just growing food for school lunches.

“I’ve recruited some of my students to help with growing the produce and I think it’s great any time you get students out of a classroom,” Atkins said. “If you’re going outside, students are going to learn more just sitting there, observing, watching and hearing the sounds of the outdoors than they would if I sat them down in a classroom and gave them a textbook.”

Durand echoes Atkins’ belief and is a strong advocate for using locally grown produce in school cafeterias.

 “I think bringing student-grown and harvested hyper-local food to our school cafeterias is a win-win for all involved,” Durand said.

In addition to growing romaine lettuce, Cypress Woods and Cypress Springs will grow other leafy greens, including basil and butter lettuce during the 2019-2020 school year. All produce grown in the greenhouses will be taken to the CFISD food production center to be washed and then returned to school cafeterias in place of traditionally grown lettuce.

For more information about CFISD nutrition services, visit its page on the CFISD website.

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