By Laurie Pearson, Staff writer
Better nutrition for kids has been the focus of recent legislation, and for schools, following the new guidelines can be a challenge.
A synergistic approach to fulfilling those nutritional goals has been implemented by staff at Lincoln County High School. It will not only give teens fresher, safer and more nutrient dense food, but will benefit the cafeteria, culinary and agriculture classes, as well as local businesses.
When the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented in order to improve the quality of food prepared for children’s nutritional programs, schools, daycares and other nutrition programs for kids, food providers have been trying to think outside the box in an effort to meet the guidelines.
The inspiration for the program at the high school began when Candy McGee, LCHS cafeteria co-manager, started researching programs and attending Farm to School conferences last year. This year the school is using locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, and the culinary class, taught by Denise Nunley, has gotten involved at least once a week to assist in washing, peeling and cutting the produce for school lunches. Nunley said it teaches the kids what it’s like to work in a commercial kitchen and also teaches food and equipment safety.
Another benefit the teachers have found is that if the students are involved with the process of preparing the product, they are more likely to eat the produce.
“I’m all about the kids and anything to help them,” says McGee.
It not only gives kids in culinary class hands-on experience, but teaches the agriculture students an approach other than soil-based growing and lessens some of the labor-intensive preparation for the cafeteria staff, as well.
Liberty Technology Magnet High School in Jackson has a huge hydroponics greenhouse program, providing five schools with fresh fruit and vegetables. A number of other schools in the state who have implemented Farm to School have successful school-based gardens, as well.
McGee and Brad Parton, CTE agriculture teacher, put their heads together and came up with a plan that would involve the agriculture students by teaching them how to grow vegetables using aquaponics.
Aquaponics is based on productive systems as they are found in nature – basically, it’s the combination of aqua culture and hydroponics.
More than a year ago, Farm Credit Services gave the agriculture department a grant for the aquaponics program.
“The kids love it,” said Parton. “You see results in two to three days – it’s almost instant feedback.
“With hydroponics, you can produce 1,000 pounds (of lettuce) a week in an area one-fourth the size of the greenhouse,” he noted.
Parton said there are lots of Farm to School grants available, NRCS grants and other matching grants and possibly STEM grants.
The kids can help pick the food safely and also learn about the business end of marketing the product. But, Aquaponics is more than just growing and marketing vegetables – it involves science, technology and engineering.
Their first project is growing lettuce, which should be ready for harvest in just a few weeks. When it matures, the lettuce will be harvested by agriculture students, washed and prepared in the culinary class and served by the cafeteria staff.
For the past several years, there have been a number of commercially produced vegetables in the U.S. and in other countries that have been contaminated with e-coli. By growing produce using aquaponics and employing safety measures, that problem will be alleviated.
There are other benefits.
“It will save us a lot of money,” said McGee. She figures about $100 per week for the lettuce alone.
“If all goes well, once it gets going, they will grow cucumbers and tomatoes,” McGee explained. With that, the savings would climb dramatically.
Parton said the classes will start growing tomatoes after the Christmas break.
“This is a win-win for us,” said Nunley.
“It’s been a win-win for us too,” said Stephanie Britt, Lincoln County Department of Education school nutrition supervisor.
Britt has offered some other creative suggestions to the cafeteria for using locally created products. One such sauce is Harold’s Hogwash, a mustard-based barbecue sauce created by Harold Wilcox, a local businessman. Britt calls it a “discovery sauce” and has found that kids are dipping a variety of foods in it.
The combination of the cafeteria, culinary arts class and horticultural class makes a great recipe for everyone involved.