Last year, I was a FoodCorps service member with The Food Project in Boston, where during the winter months mountains of snow were a permanent fixture on the sidewalks, and temperatures refused to climb above freezing. I was fortunate, however, to host my weekly class of third graders in an oasis from the weather, where radishes and arugula, turnips and parsley, cilantro and spinach grew in mighty defiance to the winter chill: a greenhouse.
This year, as the FoodCorps Fellow in Iowa, the service members I support are attempting to garden with kids in a climate as harsh, if not harsher, than I dealt with in Boston. For the two FoodCorps members who have greenhouse access in Iowa, this infrastructure is an amazing opportunity to engage students, supply school cafeterias, save money, and build a stronger community.
One great benefit of a school or community greenhouse is the dense web of connections one can make between the indoor growing space and school curriculum. In the greenhouse in Boston, we always had raised beds full of herbs for students to build their vocabulary around texture, aroma, and flavor. It was easy to plug into the classroom science curriculum, too, so that when the students were studying the water system in December, for example, we could develop a hands-on lesson to study transpiration on plant leaves.
We also used the square foot gardening method to grow in raised beds, which allowed students to work on their math skills: if 16 radishes can grow per square foot, how many radishes should we plant in 4 squares? How many inches should each plant be spaced apart from each other? To touch on social studies, we talked about how different cultures incorporate the same herbs into their culinary traditions, and students collected their family’s own traditional recipes to share with the rest of the class. It was wonderful to be able to draw these garden-based curricular connections year-round, rather than being constrained to garden use at the very beginning and end of the school calendar.
Beyond educational use, a greenhouse is also fantastic for growing produce to include in school meals. Service member Ashley Turk currently has access to a greenhouse at one of her schools in the Northeast region of Iowa. She and the district’s food service director, Julie Magner, have teamed up to bring some of the greenhouse’s bounty to the school cafeteria, harvesting about 79 lbs of produce for the salad bar from December to May. Items sourced include lettuce mix, radishes, potatoes, swiss chard, and parsley.
“The greenhouse has been a godsend this year,” Turk says. “The space allows us to extend our growing season to nearly year-round, which is crucial in this corner of Iowa.”
When Turk brought middle school students to help with harvesting for the salad bar, she saw that, “Students who are engaged in the growing of vegetables are ten million times more likely to consume them… After planting and harvesting the fruits of their labor, Mr. Rausch’s seventh grade science classes could not wait to sample the vegetables!”
Without a productive indoor space to grow, it would be nearly impossible for this kind of experience to take place– especially in the dead of one of the coldest Iowa winters on record.
Greenhouses can also save gardeners lots of money, and even help them make some! Iowa’s member in Black Hawk County, Emma Cornwell, has access to greenhouse space for growing seedlings at the University of Northern Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairie Center. “I get a lot of seeds donated to my gardening projects. But I wouldn’t realistically be able to use them without a greenhouse, since most of my classrooms don’t have the space or light to start them,” Cornwell says. “I’ve definitely saved money by using donated seeds to start my own broccoli, kale, tomato, and herbs.”
The Food Project uses half the growing space in the greenhouse in Boston to sell to local restaurants, and starts their own seedlings for an annual plant sale held every spring. Generating funds from greenhouse space allows gardening programs to be more financially sustainable, and can serve as another learning opportunity for students. Organizations like the Future Farmers of America, for example, turn plant sales into entrepreneurial opportunities that can be as educational as they are lucrative for the students involved.
Before a greenhouse can be a financial and educational asset to a school or community, however, it needs to be built. And greenhouses are not cheap; they require a great deal of investment and resources, which not every community is able to spare. There are certainly less expensive ways to extend the growing season, such as low tunnels or cold frames, but these structures do not serve a double purpose like the greenhouse does. Rather, a greenhouse is not just a space to grow food, but community, as well. We’ve got to make sure we’re growing those two things together, and that’s a reason worth the investment.
By Marlie Wilson.
Iowa FoodCorps Fellow
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of passionate leaders who work to connect kids to real food. As a “Seed Funder,” Annie’s is enabling FoodCorps Fellows to support, guide, and mentor service members who then go out to teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from, build and tend school gardens, and bring high-quality local food into public school cafeterias.