Lettuce for CA district grown in freight farms

An innovative freight container system modified into a vertical hydroponic garden produces just over a thousand heads of lettuce each week, served fresh for Ann Sobrato High School students to enjoy at lunch. The freight farm is just 320 square feet and sits on a concrete slab outside the California school, in Morgan Hill Unified School District.   

Seedlings waiting to be planted

“Lettuce holds the most nutrients in the first 24 hours after harvest,” said Michael Jochner, Director of Student Nutrition for the Student Nutrition Department in Morgan Hill Unified School District. “We are serving it for lunch to our students the day after it is picked.” The district is currently growing four types of lettuce including Rouxai Lettuce, Sweet Crisp Lettuce and Green Butter Lettuce.

Jochner says the system is essentially running carbon free. It is powered by excess electricity generated by the high school’s solar panels. The crops only require five gallons of water a day, which is an added benefit in California, where drought conditions impact much of the state. To put the amount of water used in perspective, five gallons is a third less than what’s used in the average shower.

lettuce growing vertically

“It takes about five hours a day to operate the freight farm. We were able to hire one farmer to take care of the operation,” said Jochner.  The process starts with growing seeds for about two weeks and then transplanting seedlings into the vertical cultivation growing area. It takes about four weeks for the lettuce to grow enough to be harvested.

A nutrient rich water drips down onto the seedlings. The entire process can be monitored  through an app on a phone. Every Friday on its Facebook page, the Morgan Hill Student Nutrition Department updates on the growing process.

Freight farm lifted into place

“Our students are amazed that this beautiful lettuce comes from the containers,” said Jochner. “They consider the process inspiring.” 

The school district estimated it would see a return on its investment seven years after starting the freight farm. Jochner is dreaming big, he wants the district to start a traditional garden too so they can grow all the vegetables used in their salad bar. He is currently looking for land to make that happen and working to get a 100% organic certification for the vegetables grown in the freight farm. 

LED lighting inside freight farm

Next up, Jochner is planning to purchase a second freight farm to be placed at Live Oak High School, the other high school in the district. The food prepared for the 8,500 students in the district is made out of two central kitchens located at the high schools. When the second freight farm is added, each kitchen will have the fresh lettuce to use in lunches.

School lunch served with freight farm grown lettuce

When school is out of session, some of the excess lettuce not used in the summer program will be given to a local food hub. According to Jochner, they are also looking to give some of the lettuce to local restaurants to feature school grown lettuce on their menus.

The Morgan Hill Unified School district used money from the CARES Act to purchase its freight farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies the freight farm as a piece of machinery while the California Department of Education (CDE) classifies the freight farm as a structure. Jochner is working with the CDE to have that changed to allow school districts to purchase their own system with cafeteria funds. 

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