By Olivia Kersey-Bronec
It starts with a leaf of lettuce. Nestled comfortably beneath a dollop of ranch. It is often the main vegetable present on a student’s lunch tray. Yet, what does the student really know about it? How did it get here? How far did it travel to get here? Who grew it? How long ago was it harvested? What chemicals and fertilizers were used on it? The students of Frenchtown MT know the answers to all these questions, thanks to Freedom Gardens. The lettuce served to the students of the Frenchtown intermediate and elementary schools comes from the 3,200 square foot greenhouse that is home to a 4,800-gallon aquaponic system on school property. Aquaponics is the process of raising both aquaculture and agriculture in the same system, creating a sustainable cycle that utilizes the fish’s waste as nutrients for the plants. This form of food production, especially on a local scale, provides an environmentally sustainable option for school lunch programs. As well as an educational outlet for the students in understanding where their food comes from. In the past two months, Freedom Gardens has replaced all the lettuce grown out of state, that was served in the cafeteria, with lettuce grown in the greenhouse. It is harvest fresh for the students’ lunches and is high quality lettuce. Jealous of these kid’s school lunches yet?
The other day, I had just harvested 40 pounds of lettuce and was delivering it to the cafeteria, when on my way I ran into two kids waiting to be picked up after school. The older brother, probably in third grade, saw my bins of lettuce and asked if he could have a piece. I said sure and reached in, grabbing out a beautiful leaf of romaine. His eyes got big and he excitedly shared the leaf with his little sister. She looked at the lettuce like she had never seen a leaf in her life. I told her that it was grown right around the corner in the greenhouse. I feel like these small interactions are a huge part of my service. Sparking student’s interest and running with it. Introducing students to fresh vegetables and giving them a face to connect their food to. Young students are full of excitement to learn and getting them enthusiastic about where their food comes from and sustainability is my goal. Igniting the desire to ask questions about their food and the environment is a central part of my service year. And starting that flame can be as simple as handing a kid a leaf of romaine lettuce from the greenhouse.
Because we are still in the development stage of the greenhouse, the focus has been getting the greenhouse ready for students and maximizing production. Which means that most of what I do is monitor the greenhouse and harvest the lettuce. The next step is to bring as many classes into the greenhouse as possible and to get the kids actively involved in the growing process. From kindergarten to high schoolers, we hope to have each class have a duty or goal within the greenhouse. It will range from planting lettuce starts to monitoring fish health. With involvement comes ownership and with ownership comes pride. My goal is for students to feel pride every time they see their lettuce on the cafeteria trays, knowing exactly who helped grow it: themselves.