Reading Public Schools is bringing the Farm into the School

School Nutrition Director Kristin Morello and Nutrition Site Coordinator Karleen Sayman turned an Organic Grow Rack into a garden of opportunity for Reading Public Schools. They spotted EvanLEE ORGANICS’ Grow Racks at the School Nutrition Association conference in October and immediately saw the potential of growing food indoors to engage students and increase nutrition education throughout the district. Superintendent John Doherty and CFO, Gail Dowd were immediately on board with the program and scheduled time at a District Leadership Team (DLT) meeting to ensure its launch in the school year 2018-2019.

RMHS grow rack after 12 days of growth (left to right- Nutrition Site Coordinator, Karleen Sayman, who spearheaded the addition of Organic Grow Racks to several Reading Public Schools with HS Nutrition Worker John Suda and RMHS Cafeteria Manager, Edra Santos).

With the dedication and commitment of a great group of Reading professionals, Reading Public Schools now have these portable indoor gardens. The schools grow plants like herbs, kale, various lettuce varieties, and spinach. The Grow Racks are 4’ wide, 2’ deep and come on wheels. The Racks do not require any outside light because they are powered by timed LED lightbulbs. This functionality allows schools to have flexibility in where they place the Grow Racks and does not require them to rely on the unpredictable New England seasons and weather conditions. Our indoor grow rack system uses terraponics, not hydroponics or aquaponics to grow plants 25% – 75% faster than supplier estimates. There are some plants that you can’t grow hydroponically, but with terraponics almost any plant can be grown. While hydroponics requires technical knowledge and training, terraponics needs minimum instruction.

To get started, Kristin asked for volunteers at a DLT meeting. The response was overwhelming and three (3) schools were selected to pilot the program. Experimenting began with one rack at Reading Memorial High School (Kate Boynton, Principal), Coolidge Middle School (Sarah Marchant, Principal), and Joshua Eaton Elementary School (LisaMarie Ippolito, Principal) with support and help from STEM Coordinator, Heather Leonard and Assistant Superintendent, Chris Kelley. After receiving buy-in from the cafeteria managers and school principals and purchasing the racks, each school selected a “school champion” to spearhead their school’s Grow Rack.

One of the many benefits of the grow racks is they are very low maintenance for schools. They just require periodic watering and then the actual harvesting of the produce. The school champion may also need to adjust the height of the lights as the plants grow. There is an initial investment in the structure and the soil but after that Kristin reinforced that, “…you can keep reusing the soil for new plants. You just must buy the seeds to keep planting. Other than that, you just have to water them, and the lights are on a timer, so schools don’t even have to worry about that.”

The EvanLEE ORGANICS “Grow Rack” at Joshua Eaton Elementary School with Cafeteria Manager, and School Champion Roberta Ferrari and Joshua Eaton 5th grade students

Caption (Image to the left): The EvanLEE ORGANICS “Grow Rack” at Joshua Eaton Elementary School with Cafeteria Manager, and School Champion Roberta Ferrari and Joshua Eaton 5th grade students

To promote these Grow Racks to students and to make the produce exciting, the schools will use these vegetables on the lunch menu with signs that say things like, “Try some lettuce from your very own grow rack.”

Earth Day planting at Coolidge Middle School with Manager and School Champion, Hilary McCarthy, Karleen Sayman and students Emma Kester, Hope Duffy, Ellie Schanck, Ryan Faris, and EvanLEE ORGANICS own Kelly Passerini.

This collaborative effort has been one that has included a long list of supporters and volunteers.   Everyone offered their help to ensure this vital program would offer the opportunity for students to connect their curriculum to this amazing product. Our wonderful custodians ensured that the watering continued over school vacation, Laura Vlasuk from the local Board of Health visited and allowed us to offer these organic greens on our menus, our principals and teachers offered to lead the charge by educating themselves and each other so they could master and manage this program as part of their day-to-day curriculum, and the School Nutrition Professionals attended the Farm to School conference (Karleen Sayman, Diane Feely (Parker), and Roberta Ferrari) and championed this project.

Joshua Eaton 5th grade planting day (Principal Lisa Marie Ippolito of Micro Mix & Karleen Sayman (standing) & 5th Grade Students)

Long-term, Kristin shared that she has a vision for phase three of these efforts. The first phase was buy-in and the second phase was to get everyone planting and using the Grow Racks. For the third phase, she would like to incorporate the Grow Racks in the ongoing school curriculum and provide more educational material and resources for teachers to be able to do just that. She also sees a huge opportunity to use the school’s harvest in fundraising efforts like selling freshly grown herbs to the school community.

Coolidge Middle School 6th Grade (Sarah Marchant, Ava Miron Olivia Bass, Jack Heithaus, and Hilary McCarthy)

If you’re interested in starting or expanding your school garden, whether it be a Grow Rack or another vehicle for growing fresh produce, Framingham State University offers a 4-week online graduate course called “Growing Your School Garden.” Sign-up today and enjoy the convenience of online learning and help prepare for the school year ahead.

For additional resources on school gardening and “going green,” visit the JSI Resource Center.

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