By Stephen Smoot
Earlier this month, West Virginia State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt penned an op-ed in response to a President Joe Biden initiative to bring more fresh food to schools. Biden criticized the prevalence of “heat and serve” meals in schools and described the need for schools to use more locally produced food.
“The President is right, although he failed to mention how we got here.” Leonhardt admitted. He added that, “A grave policy mistake made by departments of education shifted us towards ‘heat and serve meals’ in lieu of home cooking. The long-term effects of these policies have worsened nutritional outcomes for our youth leading to adulthood health risks.”
Additionally, as Leonhardt described, schools no longer have most of the equipment needed to do much more than they offer currently. He said, “If we are truly going to serve better meals in our schools like the President wants, it will take a huge investment in school resources.”
One could say that Becky Rightsell’s sixth-grade class at Brandywine Elementary School is way ahead of the curve in exploring ways to meet these challenges.
In the rear corner of her classroom stands a bright white stand measuring about five feet in height, illuminated by special LED lighting. Bursting from a series of openings covering the structure are leaves of all shapes and sizes, sporting many brilliant shades of green. Called a tower garden, it provides year-round growth of most types of plants. Rightsell’s students planted a wide variety of types of lettuces and herbs.
Because one is “still planting plants you will be able to eat,” as Laney Bowers explained, it serves the same purpose as a traditional garden, but the similarities end there. She added, “This one, we fill up the bottom with water and use LED lights.”
The tower garden also does not use soil as a medium. Instead, seeds get planted in small spun lava rock cubes named rockwool. Incidentally, an insulation plant in Jefferson County (also called Rockwool) uses the same spun stone process to create its more environmentally friendly products.
As Marley Champ explained, the process began away from the tower. Champ said, “when we first started, we kept it on a heating pad with lights. When they got big enough, we moved them to the tower.”
Classmate Anthony Henderson explained that once in the tower, “we have controlled temperatures and we control light and water.”
A more controlled environment than a traditional outside garden helps the plants to grow faster, despite the class only using nutrients and avoiding artificial growth promoting substances, pesticides, or insecticides. The class even uses water from the Rightsell family spring, eschewing use of tap water that contains chemicals.
Scott Somerville from Storybrook Farm donated the tower garden. He said of the class’s efforts, “I want our sixth graders to get excited about farming. People in the city need a ‘Tower Garden’ to grow a little lettuce for lunch, but we can grow anything here in the county. With great teachers like Becky growing food right there in the classroom, I hope we’re raising some future farmers as well as lettuce!”
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