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Lettuce lessons: Third-graders learn about hydroponic farming

Kent City — For kids who don’t like eating their vegetables, a Kent City Elementary School third-grader named Finn has some advice: 

“Sometimes when you eat it alone, it doesn’t taste the best,” he said. He recommends adding some greens to a sandwich, or eating a salad to make it easier to stomach. 

Finn shared his thoughts while standing near hundreds of lettuce plants floating in a pond at Revolution Farms, an indoor hydroponic operation in Caledonia. He and fellow third-grader Riley toured the farm with their science teachers Nicole Andreas and Billie Frieland to mark the start of the farm’s new education program for local school kids.

The program is funded by a federal grant awarded by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Kent City Elementary School will serve as a model to encourage other schools to learn more about hydroponic farming and healthy eating, according to Revolution’s spokesperson, Gwen Vogelzang. 

Lettuce for Days

Before entering the one-acre hydroponic room, Finn and Riley geared up with hair nets and special shoe covers as Vogelzang quipped, “Food safety isn’t glamorous!” 

“Whoa! Look at all the lettuce!” said Riley, looking at the sea of greens floating in tiny rafts as they go through various stages of growth. 

The lettuce heads are fed by nutrients added to the water, a farm worker explained; this fact was visibly disappointing to Finn, who thought the plants would be fed by the waste from fish that are often used in hydroponic farming.

As the students and teachers entered the room where lettuce seeds become small plants through an automated system, Andreas leaned over the skinny troughs shuttling seedlings into the room to talk to the kids about the technology they’re seeing in action. 

“The robot doesn’t know how to do anything,” she said. “A person (called a computer engineer) has to tell it what to do so it knows when to push (the trough).” 

Learning to Eat for Health

Finn, left, says that it’s easier to eat nutritious greens if you add them to a yummy sandwich or salad

The farm tour is part of a larger initiative at Kent City Elementary School to teach nutrition in hands-on ways to K-5 students. In 2022-23, the school’s annual Walk-a-Thon fundraiser provided funds to build a greenhouse on school property, and a national grant funded in part by local apple farmers is allowing Frieland and Andreas to do innovative nutrition education.

It makes sense, then, that the teachers have been in touch with Vogelzang at Revolution and are the farm’s first adopters of its new program for school-age kids.

“They’re already involved in teaching kids about nutrition science, so we’re just going to jump in and complement what they’re already doing,” Vogelzang said. 

Revolution also launched a new kid-centered website, lettuceeatmoregreens.com; Finn and Riley were the first to explore the site, watch an animated video about hydroponic farming and complete a 10-question quiz that could help their school win a hydroponic growing system.

The school with the most completed quizzes by the end of the 2023-24 school year will win the system, which the KCES teachers and students agree would be the perfect addition to their outdoor greenhouse. 

Finn and Riley plan to make sure that their school’s quiz participation rate is 100%. 

Their score? 10 out of 10. 

Read more from Kent City: 
Local apple farmers help bring national Apples4Ed grant to elementary school
‘Feed the kids’

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Allison Poosawtsee
Allison Poosawtsee
Allison Poosawtsee is a reporter covering Rockford Public Schools and Kent City Community Schools. She has spent 15+ years working and writing in the education context, first for her alma mater, Calvin University, and then for various businesses and nonprofit organizations in the Grand Rapids area. As a student journalist, she served as editor-in-chief of Calvin’s student newspaper where she garnered several Michigan Collegiate Press Association awards for her work. Allison is a proud parent of two Grand Rapids Public Schools scholars and a passionate advocate for the value of public education.

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