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.”
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 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.”
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.