Next school year, students at Maize High School will eat salads that feature produce grown just outside the science wing.
“The kids are actually craving real food that tastes good,” said Jay Super, a science teacher at Maize High. “And you can’t get any fresher than taking it from the south end of the building and carrying it down to the cafeteria.”
As part of a Farm to School pilot grant from the Kansas Department of Agriculture, students will test various methods of food production – hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics and raised-bed gardens – and occasionally serve what they grow in the Maize High lunchroom.
Maize was one of eight districts in the state to be awarded the grant, which seeks to expand the prevalence of fresh, local foods in school cafeterias and bolster agriculture and nutrition education. Maize High will get $12,500, which officials will use for supplies and farm operations.
As part of the grant, agriculture students will partner with classmates in the culinary arts program to grow, prepare and serve at least two locally produced food items in the school cafeteria at least five months during the next two school years.
The foray into agriculture is new for Maize, a suburban district of about 7,000 students that includes portions of west Wichita.
Super, who teaches agriculture science classes and sponsors the school’s new chapter of FFA, said the program teaches kids about food production and illustrates the variety of career options in agriculture.
“This idea that food comes from Dillons on plastic or Styrofoam is not correct, so we’re just getting them to think about where their food comes from,” Super said, “then start thinking about sustainable ways to get that food and maybe growing your own food.”
During field trips to Cargill, which helps sponsor Maize High’s program, students also see that the agriculture industry is more than just farming or ranching, he said.
“These people are microbiologists and chemists and marketers and photographers,” he said. “Almost anything you’d be interested in doing, you can find in the world of agriculture.”
Unlike some of the other Farm to School grant winners in rural parts of the state, Maize High plans to focus on urban farming techniques that require less space and foods that can be grown year-round.
In addition to raised beds, where they’ll grow carrots, radishes and other soil-rich produce, the students will set up hydroponic and aeroponic systems indoors, in which they’ll grow lettuce, tomatoes and other items with little or no soil.
The school doesn’t have a greenhouse, but Super plans to use a hallway that has large windows and is behind the science classrooms. He also envisions a small hydroponic growing system, in which gardens would draw nitrate-rich water from tanks of tilapia or other edible fish.
“I want this to be kind of a showcase that anybody, anywhere can grow their own food,” Super said.
“Once we start getting some gardens and greenhouses and hydroponics stuff going, the kids will say, ‘Oh, that’s cool. What class do I take where I get to do that?’ ”
As part of the grant, the school also plans to create and implement a farm-to-school outreach program for elementary students. Once high school students have figured out which systems work best, they will create mini-farm “kits” and share them with Maize elementary classrooms, Super said.
“We’ll tell them all about food and food science and agriculture,” he said. “And we’d like to be able to leave these little food-growing kits so they could do some experiments themselves, maybe growing some strawberries or whatever.”
Super said students will spend the rest of this school year ordering and setting up their gardens and researching which varieties of tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro or arugula might work best in each setting. With luck and hard work, the first school-grown salads may be available shortly after school starts in August.
“It’s fun, it’s great work, but most of all, it’s so good for these kids,” Super said. “I can’t wait for these students to get their hands dirty and get involved in growing their own food.”