Summertime + Summer School = Seed Saving

We will have summer school through the month of June, and then we are DONE (well done) till classes begin again in the Fall. This week, students headed straight to the Grow Zone – aka field plot – to harvest crops before the heat settled in. It’s been close too 100 degrees several times during the last week.

The beautiful Moon and Stars watermelons are the reward for the hard work in the garden. This variety was thought to be extinct, but a Missouri farmer had saved the seeds – and we got some (thank you Forage!). The students carefully saved the seeds of these, too – for next year’s crop.

No, Daniel is not a gnome. These squash (next to the moon and stars watermelon) are HUGE - grown out for their seeds.

No, Daniel is not a gnome. These squash (next to the moon and stars watermelon) are HUGE – grown out for their seeds.

They are also saving the seeds from two other American heirlooms:  the red-striped greasy bean, a nutrient-packed  “soup bean” from Appalachia and the Hopi Red Dye amaranth from Arizona, a grain that has been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years.

Growing these plants and saving the seeds, the students are learning about the cultures where they originated and the relationship between horticulture and human culture. They are part of the chain.

And we get to eat watermelon.

Cash Crop

Basil replaces lettuce in the NFT table.

Basil on the grow-poles.

Our greenhouse production is heating up – for one crop: basil.  While the school system is not quite ready for pesto yet, our community is, and summertime is a great time to shift from school lunch production to local restaurant.  Plus the basil seems to really love the rising temperature in the greenhouse. Selling summer basil will help keep the program sustainable the rest of the year.

This week, Satchel’s Pizza and Tempo Bistro will be featuring lovely Loften basil on the menu. If you stop by, please thank them for us!

Basil takes over from lettuce in the NFT table.

Basil takes over from lettuce in the NFT table.

Blueberries! (The rest of the story)

Lake Forest blueberry eaters 2

Twelve hundred pound of fresh, super-sweet, locally-grown, organic blueberries were on the trays of Alachua County students in 13 schools this week! Managers either served them fresh in a cup or offered them in yogurt parfaits.

As a new product for the schools, there were some challenges – from receiving to storing to packing and distributing. But lessons were learned and the results were great. A very informal survey  – a couple of us walking around three lunchrooms asking how students liked them – yielded overwhelming acceptance by students and staff. By buying in bulk at the end of the season, we saved money, supported a local farmer, and offered great nutrition to our students. And GET students received more job skills training in weighing, measuring, food safety, and documentation.

Blueberries are considered a super-food, and we are fortunate they grow so well in North Central Florida. They were a nice finish for a fun school year of growing, purchasing, packing, preparing, and eating food grown by our community for our community.

Donna Miller of D&J Blueberry Farms in Inverness

Thank you, Donna Miller of D&J Blueberry Farms in Inverness!

Spring Open House

DSCF6553Students got to show off their work on Saturday when parents arrived for our Open House.  Tours of the greenhouse and classroom area were followed by a visit to the “Grow Zone” (formerly known as the field plot) and the Eagle Nursery which is staffed by adults with disabilities, including one of our own graduates. It was a warm day, and families enjoyed a snack of lemon balm tea and cucumber salad prepared by the students. It was fun to see the place through new eyes and to see how much the students have learned this year while they led their families around the different areas.

cukes 5.9.15

Greenhouse Cucumber Forest





Eagle Nursery


Thanks to Gainesville Compost . . .

Chris Cano of Gainesville Compost is on the far right

Chris Cano (far right) and our expressive Friday crew

We have worms!  Chris from Gainesville Compost helped students build a large worm bin to dispose of some of the snack scraps we produce. Students are amazed at how quickly the vegetable matter “disappears.”

gnv compost

WORMWe are so grateful and proud to work with Gainesville Compost. They have been regular helpers, and this new composting system not only helps the students learn about worms and their function in decomposition and soil conditioning but will also teach the many visitors we have at Loften.

You can learn a lot about them and how to plug into their bike-powered composting service and advice here.

Cucumbers are coming!

Measuring cucumbers to determine readiness for harvest.

Measuring cucumbers to determine readiness for harvest.

The students are growing some beautiful Persian cucumbers in the greenhouse in beta buckets. They are just starting to come in! They are kid-friendly cukes – small, thin-skinned, seedless, and sweet. We will use them in school lunches through May and then in our summer feeding program!

These are top-of-the-line veggies going out to children most in need of good nutrition. Grown by students for students!

Eugene finds the perfect cucumber for harvesting.

Eugene finds the perfect cucumber for harvesting.

Kelly and Eugene inspect cucumbers.

Kelly and Eugene inspect cucumbers.

The other side of farm-to-school

gville sun photo

We were so excited to find this great article on our Farm to School program on the front page of the Gainesville Sun last week!  While the amazing and beautiful hydroponic lettuce production has gotten a good deal of press lately, it’s harder to get the newspaper to feature the more mundane and routine side of getting large quantities of farm-grown food on the lunch tables.

This story includes a tired and sunburned farmer, a field of farm workers, harried school accountants, and 1600 pounds of lettuce loaded on a trailer each month on its way to the back door of our processing kitchen. It also includes our beautiful students decked out in hairnets and plastic gloves.

Cheyenne and Miranda go through checklist for receiving produce

Cheyenne and Miranda go through checklist for receiving produce

Arthur records harvest on a spreadsheet

Arthur records incoming lettuce on a spreadsheet

It’s not as pretty.

But it’s so important! THIS is our little part of a viable local food system! The farm growing our lettuce is the first one in the southeast to receive the “Agricultural Justice Project” certification. The farm workers at the Family Garden farm work for a living wage! And our students, waiting on the other end for the produce delivery, are learning valuable skills in food safety and accounting that will hopefully lead to meaningful work in their post-school lives. And all that (organic, restaurant-quality) lettuce, handled with care and driven all over the district in a plain-jane refrigerated truck, will end up on the plates of some students for whom this will be their only fresh vegetable today.

This article in Orion magazine describes well what we are working to do on a small scale at Loften now. We are excited about plans to grow a larger food hub in our region in the near future. It’s a good direction to be heading if we want healthy children, healthy farms, and a healthy local economy here, in this community.

Help us keep growing as the weather heats up

Our greenhouses have come a long way since August!





before 3




Electrical system revamped – check. Evaporative cooing system installed – check. NFT tables producing – check (150 heads of lettuce a week!). Hours and hours of cleaning, sorting, hauling, installing, and caring by students and volunteers – check. Several large donations to kickstart the how thing – YES! (Thanks to the Patty Shively Foundation, Keep Alachua County Beautiful, and Dr. Kim Kazimour who got the whole thing moving forward.)

Now we need one last thing to outfit this system for the long haul: louvers to help control the temperature and protect the evaporative cooling system.

These are pricey, but they’re necessary additions in order for the greenhouse to function optimally during changes in weather. If you can help, please visit our site on Alachua County’s “Find It Fund It” page to make a donation. We are almost there (thanks to you).

These. Ten of them.

Hydroponic lettuce harvest = fresh, local salads for four schools

Arthur and Matt carefully bag lettuce

Arthur and Matt carefully bag lettuce

G.E.T. (Growing Education Training) students harvested 150 heads of beautiful mixed lettuces – the first of a continuous stream of weekly harvests from their amazing NFT table. Wearing gloves and hairnets, students carefully trimmed the root ball of each head before gently wrapping it and sending it on its way to the cooler. From there, the lettuce was transported to four schools – Duval, Metcalfe, and Lake Forest Elementary schools, and Loften High – for inclusion in their school lunch.

Willard with the first lettuce harvest

Willard with the first lettuce harvest

on its way to the kitchen

on its way to the kitchen

This harvest was the culmination of hard work and a lot of learning on everyone’s part – from following written and oral instructions to set up the complicated system, to mixing the nutrient solution, to checking and recording pH levels daily, to monitoring plant growth and trouble-shooting a nutrient deficiency. The students were there at every stage of the life of a lettuce plant, truly a “seed to plate” experience for them.  They were thrilled to share the process with some of the kitchen staff who will be serving it to students this week.

Kitchen staff and district dietitian visit the greenhouse during harvest

Kitchen staff and district dietitian visit the greenhouse during harvest