If your mental picture of public school lunches features browned iceberg lettuce and pale hothouse tomatoes, it might be time for an update. Starting this fall, UNH’s Thompson School of Applied Science is teaming up with the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD) to enhance Oyster River’s already robust school lunch program, providing students with fresh, local vegetables hydroponically grown in the university’s greenhouses.
Since joining the community in 2012, Oyster River’s child nutrition director Doris Demers ’16 has made it a priority to buy local and bring fresh options to students. But achieving her objectives outside New Hampshire’s traditional growing season was an ongoing challenge until Jonathan Ebba, the facilities manager for the Thompson School’s horticultural technology program, proposed a partnership this past spring. “I’ve always felt strongly about buying local because everyone knows fresh is the best and the longer a vegetable is off the plant, the more nutrients it loses,” Demers says. “Because we’re in New Hampshire, the growing season is short and there are few things available. But now that we’re working with Jonathan and the Thompson School, we’re able to get locally grown veggies year round.”
The Thompson School added hydroponic growing to its horticultural technology program in 2016. Ebba says the decision to train students to grow vegetables hydroponically was the result of changes in New Hampshire’s greenhouse industry. “Hydroponics is the future of fresh, local produce in New England,” he says. “As our students gain real-life experience operating a hydroponics enterprise, they know that the fruits of their labor will help to nourish children in our community.”
ORCSD pays fair-market value for the vegetables, providing much-needed revenue for the UNH greenhouses. But Ebba doesn’t see the partnership as being only about the sale of vegetables. He’s already scheduling field trip tours for ORCSD classes to further the connection between Oyster River students and his own. “Ideally, this collaboration will give Thompson School students opportunities to share information about our food production model, and ORCSD students will be able to learn about these systems and the underlying science in greater depth.”
In the first few weeks of the partnership, Oyster River received some 90 heads of lettuce and more than 40 pounds of other vegetables from the Thompson School. As production of the greenhouse crops increases, Ebba estimates that he’ll provide Oyster River with 35 pounds of tomatoes, 85 cucumbers, 65 green peppers and 120 heads of lettuce a week. Deliveries will also include more unique items, including baby bok choy, kale and micro greens, depending on what’s available.
Originally published in UNH Magazine Winter 2018 Issue