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Welcome to the Richland Parish School Board
A Fresh Approach to Feeding Students
Outdoors might be sporting the usual winter grays and browns, but inside the greenhouses at Rayville High School, is a lush, brilliant green. Earlier this year, Richland Parish Food Network Services was given a grant through Seed Change, an initiative of the National Farm to School Network to expand the use of locally grown produce in schools through changes in procurement, education or the addition of school gardens. The Seed Change Program in Louisiana is funded by a donation by the Walmart Foundation.
Beverly Gresham, field manager for Richland Parish Food Network Services, said the office received a $26,000 hub grant and the schools each received $5,000 seed grants. The schools used the grants to update four greenhouses on the Rayville High School campus and one on the Delhi High School campus (with assistance from the Delhi Hospital).
Rory Gresham, the greenhouse manager, runs three greenhouses at Rayville High. The first is for germination. Seeds stay there for the first three weeks before being moved to either the tomato greenhouse or the lettuce greenhouse. Right now, Rory Gresham does all the work. He said the program was started too late in the year to adjust students' curriculum, but they hope to have student involvement in the program starting in the 2016-17 school year.
Rory Gresham, greenhouse manager for Richland Parish School Food Services, shows the root system on lettuce being grown in a hydroponic greenhouse. (Photo: Bonnie Bolden/The News-Star)
Rory Gresham said the grant was approved on Sept. 8, and the site was named one of six demonstration sites around the country in the National Farm to School Network. Work on restoring the greenhouses at Rayville was finished in October, and the system was in use in early November. Since then, they've hosted two training sessions for 15 other schools — one in November and one in December. "We've got a lot of the community interested in it," Beverly Gresham said.
On Dec. 3, Rayville High School hosted 50 participants from other school districts and special guests to a demonstration of the uses of the greenhouses in education from pre-kindergarten through high school, including hydroponic food production for the school cafeterias and school-based businesses. Hydroponic production grows plants in water, without soil.
Before the greenhouses, Beverly Gresham said, the food services system tried to order food from local growers to support the economy and ensure students were getting fresh meal options. Cafeterias, she said, use lettuce and tomatoes daily for salads and dressing sandwiches. Growing their own, she said, allows them to provide fresh, locally produced food year-round without the winter break traditional farming requires. "I think in the long run, it will be a cost savings and a lot healthier for the kids," she said, noting the greenhouses on campus have sparked some students' interest in growing food. The main goal, Rory Gresham said, is to offer fresh options and improve calorie counts.
Katie Mularz, co-founder and executive director of the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance, said Louisiana is one of three states to get funding through Seed Change. The program looked for districts with the potential to grow, and Richland Parish fit the bill. The program has had "amazing" buy-in from the school district. "In turn, they opened doors to other schools in the state with similar visions," she said. "It's all about momentum and inspiring others, and that's what they've done."
The grant and the parish schools' involvement, the couple said, was driven by Gracie Hosea, the food services supervisor for the parish, and they started the process of getting the grant and researching the greenhouses in July. Rory Gresham said he told his wife and Hosea that he'd help, thinking setting up a greenhouse wouldn't be difficult. He has an agrisciences degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe. "I didn't think I'd ever use it," he laughed. "We're learning we can produce more food in there than in a five-acre field." Six months later, he said it's a seven-day a week job. "We never dreamed it would be this way."
In the tomato greenhouse, three long rows of tubs, each containing two plants sunk in perlite, are kept at a toasty 72-80 Fahrenheit. Seven times a day, for a minute at a time, a preset system pumps nutrients and water into the tubs. The Ph balance, he said, has to be adjusted multiple times a day with sulpheric acid because of fluctuations in the city water system.
Rory Gresham said the plants, staked to cords hanging from beams, ultimately will grow up to 45 feet long and, starting in February, will produce fruit through the end of the school year. Over the summer, he said, he'll replace the plants. The process, from seed to produce, takes 90 days, and he's testing three varieties: Terrero, Trust and Tanger. "We're trying to figure out what we want to grow," Rory Gresham said. "This is all experimental for us."
In the third greenhouse, pipes recirculate water and growth formula around the roots of 1,800 lettuce plants. Rory Gresham said he can harvest 300 plants a week, and he's growing nine varieties. The water in the system gets changed every three weeks, but the flow has to be adjusted on every row daily because of changes to the roots.
Water and minerals recirculate through this hydroponic system for growing lettuce. (Photo: Bonnie Bolden/The News-Star)
The lettuce, he said, spends six weeks in the tubes after the first three weeks in the germination greenhouse, so it's nine weeks from seed to harvest. So far, he said, he hasn't had to use any pesticides. "It really spoils you to do this," he said. "There's no weeding." The process is time consuming but requires little physical labor once the system is in place. During school holidays when the harvest can't go to cafeterias, the Greshams said the produce will be sold to local restaurants or made available to community groups. Any proceeds will go back into the Richland Parish Food Network Services.
Rory Gresham said future plans involve installing an orchard that will include blueberry bushes through a partnership with chef Cory Bahr and help from the NOLA Tree Project. The orchard will be installed as part of the Greaux Healthy Kids initiative to put orchards in schools. Anyone interested in sponsoring the orchard should contact the NOLA Tree Project. Over the summer, Rory Gresham plans to expand the lettuce production system to allow 4,200 plants to grow at one time. That will increase production to 700 plants a week and put the produce in every school in the Richland Parish system, he said. Components for all of the equipment, the Greshams said, were bought locally, and the system was hand-built. "This is thin-wall pipe we drilled 1,800 holes in," Rory Gresham quipped, gesturing toward the growing lettuce.
He said he plans to add about 30,000 strawberry plants growing in vertical pipes, then maybe cucumbers. Eventually, he's considering aquaponic options that would raise fish for consumption in the water used to grow the plants. "The possibilities of what you could do are endless," Beverly Gresham said.
Beverly Gresham said they hope other schools follow suit and get involved in the farm to school initiative. Mularz said getting kids involved in growing their own food and thinking about where that food comes from makes them more likely to taste the produce. The fourth greenhouse at Rayville High is used for educational purposes by agriscience teacher Dale Summers and special education instructor Coby Whitehead. Future Farmers of America and 4-H groups also will use the space. At Delhi High School, agriscience teacher Yvonne Goodman will help Jump Start students grow bedding plants for sale. Beth Gregorie, who teaches agriscience at Mangham High, is working to get a donated greenhouse moved to the campus. Amanda McMullen, project coordinator for the Northeast Louisiana Economic Alliance, said "this is a phenomenal opportunity for the students and the community of Richland Parish."
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