Students and faculty at Central City High School, along with Central City FFA, in Central City, Nebraska, have spent the past few years building their greenhouse program to the point where they’re now able to provide their cafeteria with fresh vegetables throughout the school year. Their hard work has earned them the Center for Rural Affairs’ second annual Greenhouse to Cafeteria Award.
More and more schools around the state are taking a hands-on approach to teaching about food production practices. From creating and strengthening greenhouse and gardening programs to working side by side with community members and businesses, students get an education in more than growing plants.
Since 2016, the Center has encouraged this approach by providing financial and technical support to schools working to improve their greenhouse and gardening programs. The Center’s Greenhouse to Cafeteria program partners with Nebraska FFA and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension to acknowledge one rural school each year for its work in increasing food production in its greenhouses.
Award applicants are judged in categories including diversity and quantity of produce grown, water and input management, student involvement, community involvement, and more.
“The Center presented an opportunity to apply for an award that fits exactly what we are trying to accomplish in Central City—providing fresh produce to our student population,” said Jessica Brondel, Central City High School agricultural education instructor and FFA adviser.
Central City’s school garden is 30 by 50 feet with 12 raised garden beds that were installed in spring 2022, plus an open area for vining plants. In addition to the outside garden, they operate a school greenhouse and two tower gardens used during the fall and spring months for classroom purposes. The greenhouse and garden areas are used by students for their School-Based Agricultural Education projects.
“Our greenhouse is utilized almost year round,” said Jessica. “In the fall, we produce mums and poinsettias for fundraisers. During springtime, students plant and create planters for our spring plant sales. We plant our garden in the spring as well, maintain it over the summer, and harvest in the fall.”
Students attend the local farmers market to sell produce from early-producing crops. Central City’s local greenhouse, Wild Roots, runs the farmers market and assists the students with any questions they have about the market process. They also provided plants and knowledge to help start the program.
Ten students in grades 9 through 12 participate in the program. In their raised beds and open areas, students grow four different varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of cucumbers, two varieties of watermelon, cantaloupe, onions, as well as two varieties of peppers, basil, rhubarb, and carrots. The tower gardens are home to a variety of lettuces, as well as basil and cilantro.
From August to mid-September 2022, they harvested 409 pounds of watermelon, 175 pounds of cantaloupe, 258 pounds of tomatoes, and six pounds of onions, as well as 233 cucumbers and 106 peppers.
“All produce grown is sold to the school cafeteria, and the fresh produce has really enhanced our cafeteria program,” said Jessica. “Our cafeteria staff has juiced the tomatoes to use as sauce, sliced them for hamburgers, made stuffed peppers, salsa, caprese salad, cucumber salad, and more. We have a salad bar each day, and fresh produce is served there, too. Our high school lunch program is phenomenal, and the staff will assist in planning next year's garden.”
Kirstin Bailey, senior project associate with the Center, says the school deserves the award and acknowledgement.
“Central City's greenhouse to cafeteria program is diverse, with lots of engagement from inside the school and out,” said Kirstin. “The different ways the produce is being utilized in the cafeteria is really exciting, and the educational opportunities the students have through the SAE projects and the local collaboration with Wild Roots is impressive.”
Plant science and horticulture classes are responsible for greenhouse operations, and students are responsible for plant selection, planting, and harvesting. Garden maintenance is also their responsibility.
They do not use fertilizer on their outdoor garden, which they water daily with a system set up on an automatic timer that’s adjusted as needed when the weather changes. Tower gardens are managed by plant science class students, who measure the pH, add necessary minerals, and maintain the water level.
“We are still in the early implementation stage and planning for future projects,” said Jessica. “This was our first year with the outdoor garden and I'd like to expand the project into a community garden with a separate location. The students have seen how much our garden can produce for the cafeteria, and it would be nice to implement a community component to the process.”
In addition to the award recognition, Central City High School will receive a gift certificate to a garden supply shop, and a trophy will be presented to them. Students also had the opportunity to present their program at the 2023 Nebraska State FFA Convention.
“We are honored to receive the award,” said Jessica. “A lot of resources have gone into making this idea a reality, and this will help us expand the project and maintain the existing garden.”
To learn more about the Center’s Greenhouse to Cafeteria program, visit cfra.org/greenhouse-cafeteria.