$300,000 farm-to-school program at Madrid-Waddington grows fresh greens for student lunches
WADDINGTON -- Farm-to-school programs are on the rise around the state, including a $300,000 pilot program currently underway in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties.
But Madrid-Waddington school officials - using a terraponics system developed by a Massena company - have moved the process one step closer to their school cafeteria.The Madrid-Waddington school superintendent said the district purchased its first three-tier growing system in September 2015.
"It is awesome. We immediately saw the benefits. Our kids are eating fresh greens and drinking green drinks. Kids started getting involved. We initially thought it might take three to five years to get to full capacity. But we are seeing strong interest from students and the food service manager. It did not take long to grow," Burke said.
He said the district grew from one rack to three, then five and now eight units.
"I think this is going to continue to grow. The greenhouse had not been utilized. Our cafeteria manager wants to make sure locally grown greens are getting on our kids' plates," according to the school superintendent.
Burke said the initial goal when the first rack was purchased was to develop a learning opportunity as well as provide a direct source of greens for the cafeteria.
The rack was purchased from 2445 Organics, and the developer of the terraponic's technology, Andy Maslin, has worked with the district's resident green thumb, greenhouse coordinator Buffy Gabri, to grow the program.
Maslin said 2445 Organics has developed a 100 percent organic grow system that is based on utilizing a primitive soil and a lighting system and eliminating environmental factors.
He said the produce being grown on the racks - ranging from a variety of lettuces to basil - is ready to harvest in 18 to 22 days, approximately 50 percent quicker than the time it would take to grow that same produce in a garden.
"And our products are certified organic. Organic usually takes 30 to 50 percent longer than traditional produce, and we are able to have our organic produce ready for harvest in 40 to 60 percent quicker than the time it takes to grow that produce outside," according to Maslin.
2445 Organics currently has the grow racks in three schools in the region - Madrid-Waddington, Canton and the Akwesasne Mohawk School. He said school personnel working with him are initially skeptical of his claims.
Gabri, an avid gardener, is a convert. The coordinator of the Madrid-Waddington greenhouse said she spends a few hours each weekend working on the racks, and she confessed it is a labor of love.
"I think it is amazing to come down here to see the change from germination to growth to harvesting. They turn over so quickly," she said.
The Madrid-Waddington school superintendent noted an instructional component has also been added to the greenhouse project this year.
Science teacher Michael Frohm has developed a plant science course, and high school students will have hands-on experience with the grow racks.
The curriculum focuses on multiple facets affiliated with the grow racks, with topics including the plant life cycle, primitive soil composition, gut microbiomes and air quality.
"The kids love it. It is a lot different than a normal class. It's really different for me too. The kids are helping design the curriculum, and test questions come from the class," Frohm said.
Burke said there is plenty of room for innovation in the plant science class. "It's a design on the fly curriculum. A lot of this is student led. It is going to be where their research and interest takes them," he suggested.
The Madrid-Waddington school superintendent said he expects the program to continue to expand, with more produce grown at the school and new classroom opportunities.
He said the produce grown in the greenhouse has become very popular in the cafeteria.