Greenhouse to Cafeteria program grows positive change in schools across Nebraska

Farm and Food

Justin Carter contributed to this story.

Many Nebraska schools are struggling to find and serve locally grown food to their students. Some schools have greenhouses, but they’re often underutilized or used only to grow flowers for fundraisers.

These greenhouses can produce food for school cafeterias, and they can be school-based enterprises that teach students leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

In late 2019, the Center for Rural Affairs decided to address this need through its Farm to School program and started the Greenhouse to Cafeteria project, which was completed at the end of 2021 with benefits seen by all involved.

Watch: Greenhouse to Cafeteria (2019 to 2021)

Program goals

The Center’s goal was to increase food production in the classroom and agriculture education in schools by offering assistance to rural greenhouse programs.

“Many rural schools may lack the funding to expand greenhouses, therefore, mini-grants can provide funds for vital purchases,” said Justin Carter, senior project associate with the Center. “The increase in food production can lead to more local food in school cafeterias and increase the knowledge base of students. The outcome is that more students will gain an interest in food production and enter agriculture careers.”

Program eligibility and benefits

Ten rural Nebraska schools that completed an application process received mini-grants and technical assistance: UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public Schools, Santee Community Schools, Tri-County Public Schools, North Bend Central, East Butler Public Schools, Minatare Public Schools, Lexington Public Schools, Garden County Public Schools, Rock County Schools, and Ravenna Public Schools.

Each was awarded $1,000, and Center staff visited the schools in late 2019 and early 2020 and met remotely with instructors during the pandemic, offering suggestions based on the schools’ needs and challenges.

Center staff also hosted online workshops for agriculture instructors throughout the state. Topics included an introduction to hydroponics, how to involve the community in the greenhouse, food safety protocols for moving harvests to the cafeteria, and innovative ways to fund greenhouse programs.

Jenny Kocian, agriculture educator at East Butler Public Schools, said the program helped pay for a portion of their greenhouse structure and for equipment including a fertilizer injector, watering cans, and wand extensions.

“It is always a win-win when agriculture programs can team up with businesses and industry to expand the learning from others,” she said. “The support by local Center staff has been nice. As an ag teacher, I am not an expert in greenhouse management. It was great to have an outlet to answer my questions.”

Students gained experience in their greenhouses and had a chance to contribute produce for their cafeterias, as well as provide products that benefited local patrons.

Improvements and insights

Nicole Sorensen, agricultural education instructor at Minatare High School, said her students had a strong desire to learn about plant growth, and they were able to do that using the mini-grant and greenhouse updates.

“We were able to get a new heater, better windows, and ventilation,” said Nicole. “We also received microgreen sets, seeds, and supplies, and were able to collaborate with our family and consumer science class to utilize plants in multiple ways.”

Justin Carter with the Center said many schools were able to make improvements to their greenhouses.

“Some schools saw an increase in student leadership and an increase in student engagement,” he said. “For instance, Garden County gained insights into growing unique house plants and now has a motivation to prioritize house plants in the greenhouse.”

Garden County Schools used the funding to buy a Wi-Fi temperature and humidity probe, tools for their greenhouse, and some beneficial insects, and the students designed a sprinkler system.

“Our greenhouse is more productive because of our participation in the Greenhouse to Cafeteria program, and our students look forward to fresh vegetables from the greenhouse on our salad bar,” said Shauna Roberson, agriculture instructor at Garden County Schools. “My students enjoy watching their seeds grow and harvesting the end product.”

Successful outcomes for students and schools

Shauna said her students wanted to get involved because they enjoy the hands-on learning in their greenhouse.

“Because of the guidance and assistance provided by this program, our greenhouse is a productive learning environment for our students, and I enjoy watching them learn through the process,” Shauna said.

East Butler students had similar experiences and have taken their interest in the field beyond participation in this program, their teacher said.

“Students have pursued post-secondary education in the area of horticulture with current ones interested in plant systems career paths,” Jenny said. “It's beneficial for these kids to learn skills they will use personally and professionally. Harvesting produce is always exciting, and you'd be surprised how many conversations make it home. Often students will talk about having their own gardens and/or parents mention that their kids are more interested in helping with the outdoor landscape, garden, and farming.”

Minatare High School students were also able to gain more than class credits and enjoyed the work they put in and its long-lasting benefits.

“It was rewarding to show our students how they can collaborate across different subject fields,” said Nicole. “They enjoyed learning how easy it was to grow plants and how they can do so at home. They also enjoyed finding out how to use the microgreens in cooking dishes.”

Farm to School in the future

The program has come to a close, but the Center continues to participate in Farm to School activities throughout the state, including the Nebraska Department of Education Farm to School Institute and Bringing the Farm to School Producer Trainings.

Center staff plan to continue working with agriculture instructors and to help develop curriculum to increase greenhouse and gardening programs in schools.

“We are looking forward to building future farm to school projects that directly work with agriculture educators and build ag education programs,” said Justin. “Working directly with instructors and students to see the unique innovations happening in schools and listening to instructors speak their values and hopes for their classrooms makes this program a success.”

Featured photos, from top: Students at Garden County Public Schools, UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public Schools, and North Bend Central.  |  Photos submitted