School Garden to Salad Bar: Hydroponics in the Cafeteria
Thanks to Salad Bars to Schools, Taylor Elementary School in Foxborough, MA was granted a salad bar in 2013 (along with 3 other schools in the district), and in 2015, thanks to Whole Kids Foundation, the school received a $2,500 school garden grant. With the grant funds, former Food Service Director Allison Johnson, along with the help of Elementary School Kitchen Manager Jane Rice, was able to implement the district’s first indoor growing tower, an *aeroponic Tower Garden, in the school kitchen to grow fresh produce for the school menu and salad bar.
*Aeroponic systems are a specialized version of hydroponics where the roots of the plant extend only in air and the roots are directly sprayed with a nutrient water mix.
Jane Rice, the Cook/Manager at Taylor Elementary School has been with the Foxborough Public Schools Food Service team for 21 years! Jane has been the district’s school garden leader since the start, and because of her outstanding commitment to school gardens, Jane has been the recipient of a 2018 Rainier Wholesome Heroes award, a 2020 SNA of MA State and Northeast Regional Manager of the Year award, and a 2021 MA Farm to School Kale Blazer Award.
In 2016 the district was given five additional Tower Gardens from a local restaurant that went out of business, which has greatly expanded the operation.
Seeds are started in the cafeteria in rockwool trays (sometimes with the help of students or some community VIPs:) and grown using a small plant light under one of the prep tables.
When seedlings are strong and ready (usually 5-10 days after planting) they are transplanted into the towers to be grown for 4-6 weeks, depending on the item being grown.
Jane: “Sometimes when a student is having a bad day they come into the kitchen and help plant seeds or transplant seedlings, and it really helps change the environment for them.”
Full heads of lettuce are ready for harvesting in about four weeks, and can be harvested more than once.
Jane: “When harvesting, I use the same lettuce over and over. I cut it with scissors leaving about 2 inches at the base and then it comes back again; in 10-14 days I can harvest it again. Three harvests is the max, because after that the lettuce starts to taste bitter. This method saves a lot of time because I don’t have to keep starting seeds as often; I just let it keep growing.”
Harvested lettuce is then washed and spun using a commercial salad spinner to then be used on the salad bar and to make chicken Caesar salad entrees that are a student favorite and weekly staple at the Taylor Elementary School.
Jane: “The lettuce is just SO FRESH and SO GREEN! And it’s also very clean, with no dirt it’s really easy to wash.”
Cucumbers, tomatoes, and other flowering plants take a couple weeks longer to finish growing, but all grow well in the towers.
Jane: “I’ve had so much fun with these towers. Everybody that sees them thinks it must be a lot of work but honestly, they’re not! In the beginning I was like a new mom, very “by the book” and checking on it daily, but once I got in the groove it’s as simple as just adding water and nutrients as needed. I just go with the flow.”
This month Jane presented a MA Farm to School webinar on “Hydroponics in the Cafeteria” explaining in detail how to use and maintain the towers. A recording of the presentation can be viewed HERE.
You can also follow Foxborough Public Schools food service adventures on Facebook: FPSFood4Kids