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From seeds to the lunch tray

Shasta Elementary students, staff plant three kinds of lettuce in new plant tower

In about a month, Shasta Elementary School students will be eating lettuce for lunch that they have watched grow from seed.

The first crop of lettuce was planted Wednesday morning in the school’s Juice Plus Tower Garden, an aeroponic system that uses water, liquid nutrients, and lights to grow produce indoors. Henley High School freshman Lanie Cox helped fourth-graders Bailey Gelhardt and Sophie Rietdyk plant three types of lettuce – butter crunch, burpee bibb and gourmet – in the futuristic-looking planter.

Shasta Elementary School Principal Randy Rose called the new tower garden an initial step towards his goal of having a full-size, operating greenhouse on the school campus. The school plans to start a garden club for students this spring.

“This is the appetizer,” he said. “It’s important for kids to understand how to grow food. There’s more to it than just putting a seed in the dirt and watering it.”

Students crowded around the lighted tower as school started, firing questions at Anna Barlowe, a Food Corps service member who teaches nutrition and helps with Farm to School programs at Shasta and Henley elementaries. She explained how a timer releases water and liquid nutrition to help the plants grow without soil.

The tower garden system was original purchased in 2017 by Cox and classmate Holly Parker as a sixth-grade TAG (Talented and Gifted) project for Henley Elementary School. Since Henley wasn’t using the system anymore, P.E. teacher Tiffany Poe, who works at both schools, arranged for the tower to be donated to Shasta.

Cox and her mother, Racheal Cox, were on hand Wednesday to teach Gelhardt and Rietdyk how to measure pH, which they will do weekly, to determine needed liquid nutrition levels for the system. Poe, who started the lettuce seeds from scratch, helped the students and staff members plant them into the tower. She then used a smaller aeroponic system to plant herbs, letting students help. The tower can be used to grow a variety of vegetables, but for this first crop Shasta will focus on lettuce.

Shasta Elementary Head Cook Dawn Alexander, who regularly incorporates local food into the menu as part of the district’s Farm to School program, is excited about growing fresh produce in view of the school cafeteria.

“I think it is going to be cool for the students to watch it grow day to day,” she said.

Alexander hopes to eventually produce enough lettuce from the tower system that the school won’t have to purchase any from outside sources.

“My goal is that we can use this lettuce exclusively on the garden cart,” she said. “The kids went bonkers over the fresh spinach we served last year from Sweet Union Farm.”

Sweet Union is a small Klamath Falls farm that provides local produce through the district’s Farm to School program. That program provides tastings of a variety of local foods and is focusing on developing a way for local producers and farmers to regularly provide food, including produce and beef, to school cafeterias.