School Greenhouse Grown Veggies on the Menu

Produce grown in the district’s new greenhouse will be on the menu this fall in Denver Public Schools‘ (CO). According to school officials, the 28,000 square foot greenhouse is the first of its kind in the United States and will eventually hold up to 35,000 plants.

Denver Public Schools Greenhouse from above

“Our district already has about 90 schools with gardens. We were trying to decide with our community partners what else we could do to provide more locally sourced food to our students. That’s when we got the idea for the greenhouse,” said Theresa Hafner, Denver Public Schools’ Executive Director of Food Nutrition Services. The new district greenhouse builds upon the success of those school gardens and three existing “on-site farms” at schools growing tomatoes, zucchini, squash and cucumbers for use in school lunches. 

With Colorado’s climate, there is a short growing season outside and the on-site farms can only grow crops until the first frost.  

“We started to think about what sort of spare land the district has that could be used for a greenhouse,” said Hafner. They met with farming partners and members of the community to conduct a study and start the long and careful planning process. Eventually, a 12-acre lot was determined to be ideal for the greenhouse and another building, which uses about 3 acres of space. Then the real work began. Hafner and others began applying for grants to find funding for the project.

“I’ve been working in school nutrition for almost three decades. I never thought I would be buying fertilizer, seeds and things to grow the food for the students,” said Hafner.  

The district estimates that it will see a return on investment in about 7 years. That could happen even faster with the rising price of food and inflation.

“We’ve been faced with supply chain issues and rising costs because of trucking produce in from places like California, this is just a win-win situation,” said Hafner.

The school nutrition team serves about 45,000 lunches a day. It was determined that several hundred thousand pounds of tomatoes were needed each year to feed the students.

“We are going to be growing several different types of tomatoes. Right now, we have hundreds of plants in all different stages of growth waiting to be planted. We want to grow what we need and don’t want to have to have a lot of waste, we know we can use extra tomatoes to make sauce,” said Hafner. The Cherry, Roma and On-the-Vine tomatoes will also be used in salad bars. Once the tomatoes are ready to be picked, they will be packaged up and placed in the greenhouse’s cooler.

tomato plants in the greenhouse

The greenhouse supervisor hired a few people to help with the harvesting and district trucks will be used to transport the fresh vegetables to the district’s schools. USDA requires schools offer a cup of fruit and vegetables with each meal, the nutrition team is assessing needs for other vegetables and plans to start growing other crops, such as cucumbers.

Denver Public Schools also has one school finding success growing hydroponic vegetables. The Bruce Randolph School is growing basil and lettuce to be used in lunches at the school. Hafner says they are growing so much that they are able to sell it to other area schools, with profits going back into the hydroponics program.

With the greenhouse occupying only a section of the 12-acres, the district is deciding how else the land can be used. There are talks about adding a community garden, a bee yard and possibly a composting operation, with ideas to also use the greenhouse for classroom instruction eventually.

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