Hoover Elementary goes green by growing own lettuce, joining six other district schools

Dec. 3—Students at Hoover Elementary School in North Mankato are getting a front-row seat to watch where their food comes from as they get to help harvest lettuce from a hydroponic garden.

It's an indoor vertical garden that can grow produce by controlling what the plants need.

Kids in Colleen Geffe-Dahle's kindergarten class were among the first in their school to harvest the lettuce, which is grown in the school cafeteria and goes into their lunches.

Geffe-Dahle said the experience brings learning full circle.

"It allows them to see the planting experience from the very beginning of the seed, to a plant, to actually something that they can harvest," she said.

She added that the best part was watching the lettuce get used in meals.

"Each and every one of the kids got at least a little bit of the lettuce and was able to eat it. And then days after when it was offered, kids who maybe wouldn't experience lettuce or bother to take it, they still took it. Even today with the hamburgers or yesterday, they felt empowered to be part of their learning."

The school is using a Flex Farm by Fork Farms out of Wisconsin.

Nerissa Hoag, Hoover cook manager, said right now, it's growing lettuce, basil and parsley but could grow tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries in the future.

Hoag said incorporating the hydroponic garden into school meals has been an exciting experience.

"I've got two green thumbs now. It's exciting to watch it grow every day and see the kids get so excited about, 'When do we get to eat this?' or 'Can I help you out in the future?' It's just really exciting," she said.

While Hoover is the latest to get a hydroponic garden and started growing in the fall, it's not the first school in the district to do so.

Mankato Area Public Schools Director of Nutrition Services Darcy Stueber, who was inspired after seeing other districts in other states do the same, initially purchased one and held a contest among schools to see who was interested in using it.

Washington Elementary got the first one in December 2021. Now, there are seven in the district across five elementary and middle schools.

Stueber said they could be introduced to other schools in the district in the future.

"The nice part about it is it does come with a curriculum that is K-12, and so it could be incorporated into some of our science classes," she said.

The district also makes efforts to go green in other ways.

Mankato East High School has a greenhouse and its own hydroponic system, and Geffe-Dahle teaches about composting in her classroom.

The hydroponic gardens are funded through the food service department.

Stueber said it's valuable to bring this hands-on experience to the classroom so students can see how their food grows.

"It's very important for kids to know that you can grow your own food. It just doesn't magically appear in Hy-Vee or Cub Foods and that it is something that they can grow themselves. Plus, the carbon footprint on it, it's grown right in our school. There's no gas or any waste that way when it comes to our fossil fuels. So it's just a nice green, clean way to grow it," she said.