Lutheran school tests hydroponics system
PLYMOUTH - Sitting down to lunch last week at St. John Lutheran School in Plymouth, students bit into fresh lettuce grown without soil right in the school's own cafeteria.
It was the first harvest of the school's new hydroponics system, which was installed about a month ago as part of a pilot program through the nonprofit Feeding America.
“In this day and age of conservation and resources, what a great way to show the students every day that there are ways to try and be a little more self-sustaining and have less of an impact on the environment,” Jay Lindsey, principal of St. John Lutheran School, said. “Along the lines of problem-solving, it’s a great educational tool for the kids.”
A member of the church congregation was able to connect the school with Feeding America to bring the system to Plymouth.
Set up in the back corner of the cafeteria, the hydroponics system is housed in a large, plastic shell that can fold open and closed, providing easy access for planting or harvesting. Nutrient-rich water is circulated through the system to promote growth without the need for soil.
So far the students at the Lutheran school, which number approximately 200 in 3k through grade eight, have tried planting lettuce. Feeding America provided the school with starfighter lettuce seeds, a fast-growing, high-yield green.
Seedlings are first planted in the classroom of science teacher Libby MacGillis before being transferred to the hydroponics system.
“They grow really, really fast. They sprout in about 24 hours,” MacGillis said. “We’ll plant them one day and by the next day I’ll already have plants.”
Students in her science classes help plant the seed and transfer the sprouts into the hydroponics system. Students also add nutrients to the water and balance the acidity of the system.
The cafeteria staff harvest the lettuce and use it in the school's salad bar, which has the added benefit of saving the school money on food costs, Lindsey said.
“We’ll grow other crops, but we did this first because we know it works really well,” MacGillis said. “We might try strawberries and peppers.”
It has not been without challenges. A leak in the system initially caused all the water to leak out overnight, which killed most of the first crop — and finding the right water and nutrient balance took time.
But the trouble was worth it seeing the students eager to eat the fruit of their labor late last week, MacGillis said.
"They loved it," she said. “Everyone wanted to try it.”