Tawny Cowell, Director of Nutrition and Facilities at Redding School District in California, is focused on providing students with local, sustainable produce through the district’s Farm-to-School program. In 2022, they set the goal of growing 50 percent of the district’s lettuce supply. To accomplish this goal, the district decided to purchase 12 Flex Farms and repurpose an unused space at Sequoia Middle School to house their indoor hydroponic farm.
The Flex Farms supply a variety of locally grown organic lettuce to the district’s nutrition program and salad bars. One Flex Farm provides enough lettuce to serve a school of 200 students with a fresh, nutritious salad every day once harvested. In fact, the district produces enough lettuce each week to support its entire school lunch program across all schools – exceeding the original goal of sourcing 50 percent of their lettuce. Lettuce is also incorporated into other meals and made available on their condiment bars.
What is Farm to School?
The USDA defines the term “farm to school” as a variety of activities conducted by child nutrition program administrators that connect students with the source of their food, improve health and education outcomes, promote equity in the food system, and inspire youth toward careers in agriculture.
According to the National Farm to School Network, farm to school “enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and early care and education sites.” Farm-to-school programs contribute to vibrant communities.
Farm-to-school efforts enhance classroom education through hands-on learning related to food, agriculture, and nutrition. Farm to school provides all kids access to nutritious, high-quality, local food so they are ready to learn and grow. These activities build excitement around food and enhance the chances for students to adopt these practices beyond the classroom. In a year-long study conducted to track perception, consumption, and knowledge indicators of fresh food and physical activity at Keshena Primary School, students reported a 46 percent increase in positive perception of fresh vegetables after engaging with the Flex Farm in the classroom. The students also self-reported a 33 percent increase in positive perceptions of fresh vegetables.
Why an indoor hydroponic farm?
Environmental impact was an important consideration for the district when deciding what type of farming method they would pursue for their Farm-to-School program. Indoor hydroponic farms, such as the Flex Farm, are a safe and environmentally friendly way to produce significant quantities of fresh food. By growing hydroponically indoors, you eliminate the common challenges associated with outdoor gardens, such as pests, disease, maintenance, and weather. A Flex Farm will produce almost 400 pounds of leafy greens in a year in 9 square feet of space. Indoor hydroponic farming was the perfect solution as it requires minimal water and energy resources, eliminates food transportation miles, and produces almost zero food waste due to the quality and shelf-life of the produce.
Results & future plans for Farm to School
Enhancing their Farm-to-School program with an indoor hydroponic farm has positively impacted both student nutrition and engagement. Tawny Cowell, Director of Nutrition and Facilities, is enthusiastic about the program and being able to provide students with the best product they can through a more sustainable program that supports local food production and reduces their reliance on processed foods. The students at Redding love it, with many having commented on how they now love the taste and texture of lettuce.
Redding School District hopes to expand their Flex Farm program to include classroom learning. The staff sees an opportunity to incorporate hydroponics into their science classrooms and are eager to engage students in the process.