Framingham Public Schools Turns an Empty Plot of Land into a Garden of Possibilities

Framingham High School overhauled an empty lot of grass on-campus and turned it into a 1.5-acre garden called The Flyer Farms. Started in 2009, this garden not only grows supplemental vegetables for the school to serve but offers employment opportunities for high school students, marketing potential for the school nutrition program and serves as a space to educate students about agriculture and nutrition.

Chef Brendan Ryan, Food Department Administrator, spearheaded the vision for the outdoor garden. He saw this empty space between buildings at Framingham High School and saw the opportunity to grow fresh produce. Brendan said that Director of Foodservice Operations Raquel Vazquez, a graduate of Framingham State University’s Nutrition Program, “…was pivotal in the inception and installation of the garden.”

Brendan Ryan and Director of Foodservice Operations Raquel Vazquez in front of The Flyer Farms.

To get the garden up and running each year, the school hosts a Garden Day which takes place on a Saturday at the end of April. This event includes National Honor Society students, teachers and families who help the food service department get the garden ready for the season. Students can earn community service hours that day and the event gets the whole community involved in the school gardens. Raquel said, “We want to make the gardens as student-oriented as possible.” The team also hires students for the summer months to help mow, weed and harvest the gardens. These roles provide employment opportunities for students and help the food service department maintain the gardens during the summer months.

For a quicker return on investment, the team buys 90-day crops so they don’t have to harvest in the middle of summer. They also strategically plan what’s in each garden bed to maximize the amount of food they can grow. Brendan works with a local vendor to buy young seedlings versus larger potted plants to save on costs.

The team grows a wide range of vegetables including tomatoes, corn, peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, butternut squash, carrots, lettuce, pickling cucumbers and herbs. To liven up the space, they also grow towering sunflowers (that reach the second floor of the building) and a variety of other flowers for decorative purposes.

The 1.5-acre Flyer Farms at Framingham High School

The lettuce usage in Framingham Public Schools is very high, averaging about 12 pounds per meal period. Although the outdoor gardens do grow a large quantity of vegetables, of course, this is not enough to cover the schools’ food service needs. Raquel and Brendan emphasized that the produce supplements these needs and on top of that, it allows students to learn how food is grown.

For phase 2 of the outdoor garden, the team also wants to grow herbs and flowers around an outdoor café. This will create an additional green space for students to spend time outside. Long-term, Brendan and Raquel want to expand their initiatives with a potential branded hydroponic growing lab. This lab would be operated and run by students in the Biology department and would help grow food for the school year-round.

Raquel’s advice to other school nutrition teams that are looking to start an outdoor garden is to do your research upfront before getting started. She said first, “Look-up your local regulations first, know what’s allowed, what you can or cannot grow. Test your soil, realistically space out your beds and ensure there is room to walk in between them and reach plants. Understand the potential barriers like pests or animals that would require you to add fencing around the gardens.”

Brussel Sprouts plants grown on The Flyer Farms.

In terms of community support, Raquel said, “A lot of the parents of students are super appreciative of what we’re doing.” Brendan shared that students now also just enjoy spending time in this space. He said that the Photography club comes down to practice taking photos, the drama club holds rehearsals there and students like to hang out and socialize by the gardens.

 

Waltham Public Schools Adds Indoor Gardens to Grow Food and Minds

Food Service Director April Liles and Nutrition Coordinator Haylee Dussault turned an Organic Grow Rack into a garden of opportunity for Waltham Public Schools. April spotted EvanLEE ORGANICS’ Grow Racks at the School Nutrition Association conference in October and immediately saw the potential of growing food indoors to engage students and increase nutrition education throughout her district.

Food Service Director April Liles and Nutrition Coordinator Haylee Dussault who spearheaded the addition of Organic Grow Racks to several Waltham Public Schools.

With the dedication and commitment of April and Haylee, five Waltham Public Schools now have these portable indoor gardens. The schools grow plants like herbs, kale, various lettuce varieties and spinach. They are always experimenting with new vegetable plants like the recent addition of radishes to the Waltham High School garden.

The Grow Racks are 4’ wide, 2’ deep and come on wheels. The Racks do not require any outside light because they are powered by timed LED lightbulbs. This functionality allows schools to have flexibility in where they place the Grow Racks and does not require them to rely on the unpredictable New England seasons and weather conditions.

To get started, April and Haylee experimented with one rack at Waltham High School to fine-tune the process. Once they found a successful method, they put together a detailed manual for the other schools to use and in turn, be successful with their indoor gardening. After receiving buy-in from the schools and purchasing the racks, each school selected a “school champion” to spearhead their school’s Grow Rack. April also ran a planning and “set-up” meeting so all schools knew how to integrate these Racks into their schools.

The EvanLEE ORGANICS “Grow Rack” at Waltham High School in Waltham, MA.

April emphasized the importance of starting slowly when beginning a school garden initiative and more importantly she said, “every school needs a champion to make this all a success.”

One of the many benefits of the grow racks is they are very low maintenance for schools. They just require periodic watering and then the actual harvesting of the produce. The school champion may also need to adjust the height of the lights as the plants grow. There is an initial investment in the structure and the soil but after that April reinforced that, “…you can keep reusing the soil for new plants. You just have to buy the seeds to keep planting. Other than that you just have to water them and the lights are on a timer so schools don’t even have to worry about that.”

April said that these racks, “… provide produce for our menus, connect kids to what we are growing and with the cafeteria. It’s a small investment with a huge reward for nutrition education.”

To promote these Grow Racks to students and to make the produce exciting, Haylee prepares samples for students in the lunchroom. The schools also use these vegetables on the lunch menu with signs that say things like, “Try some lettuce from your very own grow rack.”

Produce grown on the Organic Grow Racks are sampled to students to connect them to the school’s gardening efforts.

Long-term, April shared that she has a vision for phase three of these efforts. The first phase was buy-in and the second phase was to get everyone planting and using the Grow Racks. For the third phase, she would like to incorporate the Grow Racks in ongoing school curriculum and provide more educational material and resources for teachers to be able to do just that. She also sees a huge opportunity to use the school’s harvest in fundraising efforts like selling fresh grown herbs to the school community.

If you’re interested in starting or expanding your school garden, whether it be a Grow Rack or another vehicle for growing fresh produce, Framingham State University offers a 4-week online graduate course called “Growing Your School Garden.” Sign-up today and enjoy the convenience of online learning and help prepare for the school year ahead.

For additional resources on school gardening and “going green,” visit the JSI Resource Center.