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.

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