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Hydroponic lettuce: A new start for the Solon High School cafeteria

Have you noticed a difference in the lettuce served in the school cafeteria these past few months?

Usually, Solon High School gets its lettuce and other vegetables from a hydroponic farm in Hudson. Recently however, the SHS nutritionist Lynne Hutchison, has taken an even bigger role in providing fresh produce for students.

Hutchison has started producing hydroponic lettuce, a soil-free alternative to traditional farming, all from the comfort of her own office. The Lettuce is exposed to a compact UV rod, allowing it to receive the optimal amount of light.

“It’s a closed system,” Hutchison said. “There is a tank at the bottom where you just put regular tap water into it. When you fill it up you test the PH, and dissolved particles, and with that, you calculate how many nutrients you need to add. There’s a PH down chemical we use to lower the PH of the water. It’s very simple, you don’t have to be a chemist to figure any of it out.

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“We start the [lettuce] sprouts in a small tray, and once it grows big enough we transfer it to the tower. We test it twice a week, we’ll have to add water every once in a while. But the water cycles through the system and trickles down behind so it feeds the roots and the plants grow super quickly.”

Hutchison says her biggest goal is to have fresh, delicious produce available without the transportation hassles or high costs.

“We are looking for fresh produce, we are looking for local produce, and so the easiest way to get that is by growing it ourselves,” Hutchison said. “Our greenhouse currently isn’t something we can use, so this is something to save space and time.

“The [hydroponic lettuce] harvests are every 28 days, so you have a nice turnover in terms of how much you can grow and produce. And, it’s very easy. Anyone can be involved, so the plan was to start small, pilot it in my office, and then expand it to the larger school district. I’d love to have a [hydroponic] tower in each building, but obviously, that’s a long-term project.”

The hydroponic lettuce has already been introduced to SHS via salad bar days and grab-and-go salads. However, each 28-day cycle only produces 144 heads of lettuce, which only lasts about 1-2 school days.

“Ideally I would like you to be eating it every single time there is lettuce,” Hutchison said. “Right now it’s about once a month when we do the harvest. I’d love to not have to buy lettuce from other people.”

The hydroponic towers allow a zero-waste, cost-effective opportunity for school lunches. Most of the waste from the lettuce, its long roots, is given to another worker at the Board of Education’s rabbits, and now Herald, Nicole Geiger’s class tortoise.

This year, Geiger’s AP environmental classes have taken field trips over to the Board of Education to learn about and help harvest the hydroponic lettuce in preparation for possible collaboration next year.

“I was really excited to see it in action and see how quickly it could be done with the class,” Geiger said. “It was a really cool experience to get people involved and curious about it. We were kind of able to get a snapshot of it, and I thought it was so exciting. People have heard of hydroponics but to actually see it and the potential for branching out into other, different types of items to grow…I think that we could really get some ideas for what to do in the future.”

Geiger hopes that bringing a hydroponic tower to the classroom will be a new, long-lasting project during the ecology unit and beyond.

“The plan is to coincide it with the ecocolumn project or potentially phase the ecocolumns growth out and just use the hydroponic lettuce because instead of just disposing of it, [like the ecocolumns] we’re going to consistently use it in the cafeteria and as food sources for the student and staff at SHS,” Geiger said. “It will all be self-contained within room 212. [the science office]”

“So each class is going to spend a few minutes each day learning how to take care of it, learning the chemistry involved, etcetera. All of us will work together and even potentially incorporate any environmental interest groups like Green Team into taking care of it and the maintenance of it.”

Hutchison is also very excited about the possibilities of collaborating with the AP Environmental classes.

“I think it’s amazing and a wonderful experience for the students because it’s hands-on,” Hutchison said. “Doing it firsthand and knowing the time and effort it takes is very rewarding and very special. Just having that green delicious looking product right in front of you is very invigorating.”

In addition to the AP and possibly general Environmental Science classes, the newly reformed Green Team has also taken an interest in Hutchison’s project.

“We would like to collaborate with Lynne Hutchison and just, as a meeting, go over and collect the lettuce for her,” said the new President of Green Team, Shayna Friedman. “As she said, it is very hard for just one woman to do all of that, so we would love to help her. Maybe we can ask the district for another one for the Green Team to just help the project be even bigger than it is now.”

Hydroponic lettuce is just the start of Hutchinson’s plans for fresh “home-grown” produce for the school district.

“I started looking at what the other seed options are,” Hutchison said. “There’s bok choy, herbs, you can do cucumber and vine tomatoes, even berries. And this is a great opportunity with the class to figure out what works and what doesn’t. My dream would be that all of the produce we get here is either homegrown or locally grown.”

Going into the 2024-2025 school year, when you eat a salad on salad bar day or pick up a grab-and-go salad, think about how that lettuce was most likely cultivated in your very own school.

“Our plan for next year is that I would love to do fresh produce more than cooked produce,” Hutchison said. “We would have a garden bar set up. So you would be looking at different colored fruits and vegetables set up every single day available for the students self-serve. The plan is to give some of the power back to you while at the same time getting the best produce available from where we can.”

This story was originally published on The Courier on April 30, 2024.