I’m delighted that this week’s blog post comes from an educator who I really admire. Danielle Petrucci not only has an impressive Twitter bio (!) but she is doing things in the #healthed class that blow me away. Check out her blog post in which she shares an innovative way to get her students to immerse themselves into the topic of nutrition, encouraging them to take their thinking to a deeper level.
The Future of Food: A Green Revolution
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 70.7% of American adults are overweight and obese in the United States. Children who are overweight and obese are more likely to become overweight and obese adults with multiple health ailments directly related to body mass index; 20.6% of adolescents are currently obese in the United States. It is imperative that young people practice skills necessary to make healthy decisions around food and physical activity as well as how to access information about high quality foods free of pesticides or preservatives to maintain a healthy weight.
As a health educator, I needed to find a creative and innovative solution to help students understand the problem with food, one of the main contributors to the obesity epidemic. For years I wanted to start a school garden, but New England weather limited agricultural opportunities during the school year. The more research I did to enhance my nutrition unit, the more I realized there was a larger problem with food than just eating junk. Food was also negatively affecting our environment, which is a public health concern. Strategies were needed to make healthier foods more accessible to everyone with limited impact on the environment. Today’s students will be the change makers of the future, practicing more sustainable methods, and it is time for a food revolution. This is where my journey with hydroponics began.
The Problem with Food
If we are going to try and solve food health problems, we need to understand our food system: How food is grown, how it affects our ecosystem, and what other health and environmental issues our food may be a contributor. The Huffington Post’s “Now What” released an eye opening video explaining the problem with food in a fast-growing population. You can view the video below.
The problem with food is multi-faceted: Population, land use, and global warming.
There are currently 7.4 billion people in the world where over 1 billion go hungry every day. By the year 2050, the human population will expand to 9.6 billion people to feed. Our crop production will need to double (See figure 1).
However, we are running out of land space to fulfill these requirements (See figure 2).
With more countries having access to meat products, the need for pastureland is evergrowing. We are seeing rainforests being cut down to supply the demand for meat and produce. The Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the worlds oxygen, yet each day twenty football fields of rainforest are cut down. Ironically enough, more of our cropland goes to feed cattle more than it does to feed people. If people ate less meat, we would have enough food to feed every person in this world. See figure 3.
The way we produce food, especially raising livestock, is one of the main contributors to global warming.
When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet – The Future of Food – NatGeo
Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined – Largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from cutting of rainforests to grow crops or raise livestock. 70% of our clean water is used for agriculture. 70% of our clean water is also polluted by agriculture through runoff. The health of our planet has severe impacts on the health of the people.
The problem with food affects us globally. If the problem with food is multi-faceted then we need multi-faceted solutions. Connecting nutrition and the problem with food, I decided to incorporate a more sustainable option of growing food in our cafeteria: Hydroponic gardening.
What is Hydroponics?
Hydroponic gardening is the production of food without the need for soil where a water nutrient solution feeds the roots of the plant using artificial lighting. The name comes from the Greek root “hydro” meaning water and “ponos” meaning labor. Hydroponic gardening gives communities the ability to grow organic produce indoors, year round, no matter what weather conditions exist outdoors. Hydroponics is not a new concept. In fact, it is one of the oldest forms of food production dating back to the ancient aqueducts of Rome. With today’s technology, we are able to use 21st Century skills to enhance the customizable systems for home, school, local, and industrial needs. Hydroponic gardening eliminates the need for pesticides warding off detrimental insects and uses 90% less water than outdoor soil gardens (see figure 4).
Hydroponics is not meant to replace traditional crop production, instead it is a sustainable solution to use symbiotically with traditional methods, reducing land use and pollution while increasing production.
The distribution of food worldwide is no longer a sustainable model, we need to grow and purchase local produce and meat. Transporting food across the globe creates a positive feedback loop, which increases the rates of carbon emissions resulting in an increase in global warming. Hydroponic gardening has shown to reduce carbon emissions, substantially reduce water usages, and it eliminates the need of toxic pesticides and preservatives in food.
The use of indoor, hydroponic gardening gives the flexibility of growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs through a local, sustainable food model.
Student Learning Opportunities
Hydroponics is connected to my 8th grade nutrition unit and our school’s Environmental Activists Ready To Help (E.A.R.T.H.) Club. In the classroom, we practice skills identified by the National Health Education Standards such as Accessing Information, Decision Making, and Advocacy skills. Students first assess their current eating habits, understand the needs for nutrient dense food, understand the hazardous effects of sugar, along with package/processed food, research information through the Environmental Working Group (EWG) apps, and finally create menus for the cafeteria. It’s here where students want to make a change and are invested in finding a solution to the problem with food.
Because of the hydroponic wall, I have developed a valuable relationship with the Hamilton Wenham Regional School District Food Service Director, Catherine Donovan. Catherine has been extremely supportive to foster opportunities that give our students the opportunity to take action. Students plant seeds and harvest the final product. The produce is used in the cafeteria with 10% donated to our local Acord Food Pantry. We have used lettuce in our salad bar, grown dill to jar pickles, and experimented with different lighting for maximum yields. Catherine has visiting the classroom, educating students about the process in creating cafeteria menus using the USDA guidelines. As a result, students use this information to create menus for our cafeteria, giving students a voice that leads the journey to a healthier community. Utilizing a vertical hydroponic system teaches students about food production and gives them access to healthier options in the school cafeteria, modeling skills necessary to become informed, healthy adults that advocate for a healthy lifestyle beyond the classroom.
Why a Vertical Wall?
Building a vertical hydroponic grow wall increased our rate of yield (see figure 5) opposed to a horizontal farm.
As you can see vertical farming allows you to grow more produce in a small space with 100 times more volume. Our school’s hydroponic grow wall has the yielding capacity between 200 – 250 plants at a time (see figure 5).
The Hamilton Wenham Regional School District is extremely fortunate to have access to the Hamilton Wenham EdFund who financially supported the grant to make this new learning space possible for students. We are also fortunate to have supportive administrators, especially my principal Craig Hovey who sparked the light bulb for the idea of a living wall in our multi-purpose room. Further details about the wall can be found in this Salem News article.
The Student’s Reaction
The vertical hydroponic grow wall has led to many new learning opportunities for students and their reaction is telling. This is what they had to say:
“I like that I am able to see the results of my hard work. At first it was gross wearing surgical gloves and having to get my hands wet at times, but it was a great feeling when I got to see my peers eating the food I grew.”
“I get to use my leadership skills in a different way, leading my peers to use sustainable methods.”
“I can’t believe I like lettuce now! It tastes so much better than store bought lettuce!.”
“I like that we are doing hands on activities instead of sitting in the classroom looking at photos or videos of other people doing hands on activities.”
“I’m really passionate about helping the environment and the grow wall gives me the opportunity to learn new things while making a difference in the world.”
In addition to the middle school nutrition unit and E.A.R.T.H. Club using the wall, the learning space has expanded to the district’s high school Environmental Club. They are in the process of being trained on how to maintain the system which is actually three systems in one for the purpose of sharing. We are also in the process of building a relationship with Change is Simple of Beverly, MA where we are looking into acquiring a solar panel for the system to run on 100% renewable energy. There are also opportunities for science, math, and social justice lessons in addition to Health Education. The vertical grow wall has many expansion opportunities for the school community that improve student physical, social, emotional, academic, and environmental health outcomes.
Benefits of plants in living spaces
Numerous studies have shown that indoor plants provide a number of benefits for health and wellbeing, including decreases in illness symptoms, increase in work performance and job satisfaction, and uplifting spirits. In 2010, scientists from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) conducted a study about the benefits of plants improving student performance. Their conclusions revealed an increase in student performance by 10% – 14% in science, mathematics, reading and spelling. From their research, the professors believe that teacher performance also improved. It is believed that the increase in plant life at Miles River Middle School will increase the health and wellness along with student and teacher performance throughout the school.
If we want our students to be the problem solvers of the world who create positive change, we need them to think differently. The vertical hydroponic grow wall at Miles River Middle School in Hamilton, MA is just the beginning of an innovative journey improving student health, environmental, and academic outcomes.
Youtube. (2015, November 5). Future Farming |E.4| What Now: November 2015
“National Center for Health Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 May 2017, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm.
France-Presse, Agence. “Methane Emissions from Cattle Are 11% Higher than Estimated.” The Guardian, 29 Sept. 2017, www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/29/methane-emissions-cattle-11-percent-higher-than-estimated.
Ostuni, Amanda. “Wall of lettuce grown in school cafeteria.” Salem News, 9 June 2016, http://www.salemnews.com/news/local_news/wall-of-lettuce-is-growing-in-school-cafeteria/article_220b49d6-44c1-558a-b961-6ee923af4dd8.html
National Geographics. “Feeding 9 Billion.” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/
Daly, John, Burchett, Margaret, Tropy, Fraser .(2010) “Plants in the Classroom can Improve Student Learning”. University of Technology, Sydney (UTS)
Reach out to Danielle if you want to know more about her hydroponics success. I saw this tweet this week which I’ll share here: