Goodrich Elementary School in Woodridge

Goodrich Elementary students learn about hydroponic food

Something exciting is growing in Cassandra Graff’s sixth-grade classroom at Goodrich Elementary School in Woodridge. Students are using the Flex Farm, innovative hydroponic technology, to grow fresh leafy greens year-round indoors. Students have already grown over 20 pounds of lettuce this school year.

Fork Farms began partnering with Woodridge District 68 in April 2019. There are currently four schools in the district with Flex Farms. Teachers are using the STEM curriculum provided by Fork Farms in partnership with FIRST Educational Resources. The curriculum lessons are designed to assist students in developing a deeper understanding and connection to hydroponic growing.

In Graff’s classroom, students conducted experiments with lettuce seeds planted in the Flex Farm. The experiments involved understanding the variables necessary to keep a plant alive (light, nutrients, space, water and air). Students were encouraged to test their hypothesis and record their findings. In addition to STEM learning in the classroom, Graff wanted to incorporate lessons on civic engagement and social responsibility..

“Students brainstormed ideas on what we can do with the lettuce that is grown in our classroom. Together, they decided on donating it to a local food pantry to benefit people within our community,” Graff said. “The food pantry is the West Suburban Food Pantry. The staff there have expressed how much the individuals receiving food enjoy the fresh produce. They are so happy to have things that aren’t in season locally but can be grown indoors using the Flex Farm.”

Alex Tyink, president of Fork Farms is excited about the positive outcomes at Woodridge Elementary.

“It is amazing to see all the different ways students are engaged in the classroom because of the Flex Farm. Teachers everywhere are coming up with new, creative ways to incorporate key learnings through hands-on education” said Tyink. “Not only are students being exposed to STEM-based learning, but they are also learning how to be responsible stewards of their own bodies, our planet and communities. That is really special and inspiring.”

On Thursday, Oct. 10, staff from the West Suburban Food Pantry visited elementary students to share the positive impact their lettuce is having on the community.


This article was originally published in the Daily Herald:


Institutional Dining: Private Schools

By Nancy Weingartner Monroe with Foodservice News

When Taher, a food service management company with the lion’s share of private schools’ lunch programs in the Twin Cities, wanted to introduce a new product from Ferndale Farms to students at The Blake School in Minneapolis, they didn’t bus the students to the farm, they brought the turkey grower to meet them where they learned.

“We had the farmer come to school and talk about how they feed, raise and process and how they get those products to market,” says Mark Brodersen, vice president of operations for Taher, a local company with 2,600 employees in 19 states.

Because farmers aren’t used to visiting schools, Taher designed a trading card with his picture and stats, similar to a baseball card, as an ice breaker for students. “And we had kids who wanted him to sign them,” Brodersen says. “Young people today want to know where their food comes from and they like the local angle.”

In case you’ve been out of school for more years than you were in, school lunches have evolved considerably—no more Jello-O and mysterious meat hiding in gravy. For instance, high school students at St. Paul Academy don’t have trays. Like a buffet at a wedding, they take their plate through the line and then go back for seconds if they so desire, says Mark Dickinson, director of operations and security at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

There’s a self-service soft-serve ice cream station, but Dickinson was quick to defend the food program by saying the cups are small and it’s not available every day.

Like the turkeys from Ferndale Farms, the food being prepared in private schools is fresh, prepared onsite from scratch and free of dyes and preservatives. “You can pronounce all the ingredients that go into it,” Brodersen says.
For Nicolle Thomas, the foodservice director from Taher at The Blake School in Hopkins, the difference in her years in public schools and private is worlds apart. For one thing, she says, Blake is not on the National School Lunch Program, which gives them more flexibility and “higher student satisfaction.” “We can use salt, heavy cream and butter,” she says, adding “not that those are the core of our recipes.” With just a little higher budget than public schools have, Blake students get organic fruits and vegetables when available and shellfish (no, not lobster, shrimp).

Public schools have also made great strides in bringing kids healthier lunches.

While Taher uses broadline distributors for staples and mainlines, they supplement with meat and produce from local farmers. And they’re also getting the schools into the act of growing their own food with the addition of a Flex Farm or hydroponic grower from Fork Farms in Appleton, Wisconsin. The vertical units grow leafy vegetables and herbs and are both a source of food and education. When they introduced it at Blake, students planted the seeds in the individual pods and then harvested the produce when it was ready. “Kids can see it, touch it and taste it a couple weeks down the road,” Thomas says.

And in an age of culinary transparency, “they’ll know where the produce in the salad bar came from,” Brodersen says.

All three private schools I contacted for this story referred me to Brodersen. It’s clear why. When the schools outsourced their cafeteria, they rightfully trusted Taher to handle everything.

For many of the schools, it’s a cashless operation at least from the students’ vantage point. School lunches are paid with their tuition. Others are retail operations where around 80 to 85 percent of the students have computerized meal tickets with a declining balance. “And we still take good old cash,” he says. In some cases, students with the meal tickets will want an extra item and will use their own cash to purchase it.

For its clients (Taher manages foodservice operations for some public schools, corporate dining rooms, and the FBI, as well), staff acts as the foodservice director. Each campus has a chef onsite and Taher hires the staff, trains them and develops the menus and recipes. “We are a chef-based company,” Brodersen says. “We’re a bunch of foodies.”

Thanks to social media and cooking shows, kids’ palates today are more sophisticated and kids are more willing to try foods other than the safe harbors every cafeteria needs to have for picky eaters. To encourage the kids to try new items, kitchen staff will sample new recipes to get buy-in. At one time they tried to come up with compelling and cute names for the items but decided it was often more confusing than helpful. For instance, the kid-favorite macaroni and cheese won’t be the popular boxed variety that’s an orange color not found in nature. Because their homemade version is closer to tan, staff sampled it with students to explain why it looked different and also provided a few modifiers to let students know it was homemade.

“Children take their first bite with their eyes, so how it looks is equally important to what it’s called,” Brodersen says.

At Blake, the students are also privy to ethnic foods, that the chefs and registered dietitians, like Thomas, developed after attending international trips with Taher’s Chef Council.

After one group’s trip to Japan, the kids were served “barbecued eel on a cute little skewer.” “We served 200” samples, Thomas says.

Founder and CEO Bruce Taher also likes to show up at schools with his five-foot-wide Paella pan and demonstrate how to make the crusty Spanish rice and seafood dish.

Pizza will always be popular—“If you served it every day, kids would eat it,” Thomas says—but fresh fruit and vegetables are receiving a number of likes.

Private school students don’t work in the foodservice program, but the Taher staff does provide teaching moments, such as with the hydroponic gardens and cooking demos. At the K-5th grade campus at St. Paul Academy, Taher staff weighed the garbage after every meal to make students aware of how much food was thrown away, Dickinson says. They also do composting.

Staffing has become more difficult over the years, Brodersen says, since the mid-day hours aren’t always attractive for part-time work. Each school has dedicated staff, but for events such as homecoming and graduation, they often borrow from other campuses.

But even with all the changes school cafeterias have seen, there are more changes coming.

St. Paul Academy is a closed campus, so students aren’t allowed to go off campus for lunch. And while we had heard of cases where high school students were getting busted for having third-party delivery systems bring them food from their favorite restaurants for lunch, neither Brodersen or Dickinson were aware of that being the case in their school programs.

But one thing Taher is looking to launch soon is an app that uploads the weekly menus and nutritional information, including food sensitivities. A natural extension of that app, Brodersen says, is to include a function where students can order their lunches ahead of time and not have to stand in a cafeteria line. They are still working on how it can it be done so that it’s not a disruption, or too costly. Although with technology, “you have to have some costs attached to it,” he says. “We have to be able to figure out a way to absorb some of those tech costs.”

School may still be heavy into reading, but the real world is moving to apps, not a paper menu sent home in a backpack.

The Menasha Model

The Menasha Model: Innovative Hydroponics and One Million Meals

By: Alex Tyink and Gil Shaw, Fork Farms

When your school district serves over one million meals per year, your foodservice program impacts thousands of lives daily. So, when change happens, students, staff, parents, school board members, and your community must all see the benefits of that change. In Menasha, Wisconsin’s Menasha Joint School District, the food service program delivered not just change, but paradigm-shifting innovation.

The Origins of Cupola Crops

Sue Malesa has been a public school Food Service Director for over 25 years. She currently serves as Food Service Director for the Menasha Joint School District, under its contract with Chartwells. Sue started implementing farm to school initiatives long before they became popular and understands what it takes to incrementally improve a program. In January 2018, Sue’s Business Services Manager, Brian Adesso, came to her with an “outside-of-the-box” idea – what if the district grew all its own fresh lettuce and herbs? Not an easy task, especially in the dark Wisconsin winters. Buying produce from a local farmer or picking a few tomatoes out of the school garden was one thing. Developing and operating a program to make the district self-sufficient in leafy greens production was quite another. But Brian had a plan. For several years, Brian had been researching how to provide the freshest produce possible to students and staff. School gardens and locally grown produce were a start; however, both were subject to weather, seasonality, and forces often beyond the district’s control. Brian concluded that an indoor hydroponic farm was the best and most reliable solution. But hydroponics for the sake of hydroponics wasn’t the right path. The solution had to fit the district in terms of capital outlay, return on investment, space requirements, and overall efficiency. After exploring options offered all over the country, the solution turned out to be just a few miles down the road.

Eric Glad, a science teacher at Menasha High School, unaware of Brian’s aspirations, saw a Facebook post about Fork Farms and thought the Flex Farm might be a good teaching tool for his classroom. He scheduled a tour with the Fork Farms team at their indoor farm facility, located only a few miles from Menasha High School. His enthusiasm about the upcoming tour began to intrigue others in the district office and the attendee number swelled to over a dozen education professionals – including Brian Adesso. It was clear to Brian and his team that they found what they were looking for. Cost, size, efficiency, ease of use, production capacity, and scalability – the Flex Farm checked all their boxes. But first, he had to convince Sue Malesa. Sue and her food service team scheduled their own tour of the indoor farm facility. She arrived skeptical but left convinced it was a good idea and, more importantly, capable of being implemented. However, there was one final partner that needed to be brought on board.

Chartwells has over 500 K-12 facilities under management across the U.S. and is the foodservice contractor at Menasha Joint School District. After several months of collaborative effort, including exhaustive review of food safety concerns, Chartwells became a quick convert to the project’s mission. Chartwells’ staff would run the Flex Farm and the district would benefit from the farm-fresh, healthy greens being served. A location was found for the first four Flex Farms inside of a cupola (a dome-like structure) at the top of Menasha High School that housed an empty classroom. It could easily accommodate these four systems with plenty of room for expansion. Like any real farm, this one needed a name. In March 2018, Cupola Crops was born.

Why Hydroponics?

In the U.S., leaf lettuce is highly susceptible to food safety, weather, and transportation disruptions. California and Arizona grow up to 99% of our lettuce, with production concentrated in just a few select regions. Over the last five years, unseasonably cold weather, drought, flooding, and pathogen outbreaks have caused nationwide recalls of lettuce products. Not only do emerging “new normal” environmental factors pose challenges to leafy green production, even the very act of transporting the product can reduce its nutritional value. On top of that, the overall carbon footprints of large-scale agriculture and food distribution have enormous impacts that go unmeasured or unaccounted for in the true cost of the produce we feed our children. Local, indoor hydroponic food production provides a cost-effective solution to these issues.

Application of hydroponics is simple. pH balanced water, combined with the right amount of nutrients and the correct amount and type of light, results in consistent yields of highly nutritious leafy greens and other produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. The design of any hydroponic system must meet one’s space requirements, budgetary considerations, and labor availability. Controlled Environment Agriculture is, simply put, growing food in space capable of being heated and cooled. It’s up to 95% more water-efficient than growing in soil. Placing a hydroponic system close to the ultimate consumer eliminates large-scale transportation, loss of nutrient value, and can ultimately empower people and communities to become self-sufficient in food production. Further, it connects us to where our food comes from, builds engagement, and establishes healthy habits. The Flex Farm takes this approach one step further by optimizing energy and labor efficiency, making it one of the easiest and most cost-effective systems to operate on the planet.

Scaling Up Cupola Crops

Set against this backdrop, Cupola Crops began operating and as luck would have it, a national recall of romaine and other lettuce coincided with Cupola Crops’ first harvest. Once students found out that “their lettuce” from the upstairs farm was on the lunch menu, it began to quickly disappear from the cafeteria. Harvests continued through the end of the school year into early June.

Cupola Crops lettuce was served at the annual back-to-school staff picnic over the summer and autumn 2018 saw continued consistent harvests from the four systems. However, these systems only met about 25% of the total leafy greens needed for district consumption. The decision was made to go all-in on a large-scale farm consisting of 13 Flex Farms plus three classroom systems. Fork Farms designed and installed the production farm, which included a unified-tank reservoir system. This allows all the systems to be run off one large supply reservoir, further simplifying production and minimizing labor. As of August 15, 2019, plants are growing and, coupled with the three classroom systems, the Menasha Joint School District is on its way to becoming self-sufficient with its own leafy green production. District teachers using the classroom systems have started incorporating the Flex Farm’s multidisciplinary, K-12 and state standards-aligned curriculum, prepared by FIRST Educational Resources, into their lessons.

The impact of the Menasha Model is no longer just local. The project has caught the attention of school districts across the country. National foodservice companies, such as Taher and Aviands, are partnering for placement in foodservice settings. Chartwells continues to support Cupola Crops and anticipates rolling out additional placement of Flex Farms in many of the schools that they serve.

The Fork Farms mission is to grow Happier, Healthier People and with partners like Menasha Joint School District, they are doing just that. The Menasha Model provides an easy to follow blueprint for districts on a micro and macro scale. The Flex Farm provides a scalable solution that creates budget-saving efficiencies in space, cost, and labor while serving as a valuable teaching tool. As implementation continues at Menasha, Brian Adesso is pleased with what he has seen. “Fork Farms has given the district the ability to meet our goal to have higher quality products that are fresher and grown locally, all without increasing costs,” he says.

Engagement of students, staff, and the community guarantees success for any food project. Paying attention to details and the larger vision are critical to ensuring the right fit, the right product, and the ultimate goal of feeding healthy, good food to our children. The Menasha Model has paved the way for others to fulfill the promise of growing happier, healthier people and with minimal impact to our planet.

Author Bios

Gil Shaw is a self-proclaimed recovering attorney with over three decades of management, partnership development, and hydroponics experience. Gil farmed in the Arizona Highlands for over 30 years, primarily to keep his sanity while practicing law. In 2014, Gil retired and moved to Wisconsin to do something completely different. He managed a large hydroponic production operation in Appleton, Wisconsin, working with veterans in a job training program. Joining Fork Farms in 2017, he first managed the commercial farm side of the business until he moved to a full-time partnership development role. Gil lives in Appleton with his two retired ranch dogs.

Alex Tyink is co-founder of Fork Farms and inventor of its farming technology and methods. He is a former opera singer with 10 years of leadership experience in the social service sector and works to inspire vast food systems change across communities. Alex has served as program director at Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin and as director of innovation and programs for Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. In 2018, he was a Fox Cities Future 15 winner and featured as Fox Cities Magazine’s ‘Big Idea.’ Alex currently lives in Appleton, Wisconsin with his wife, son, and their dog Maya.

River Food Pantry

American Family Interns Win Share Tank Challenge to Award $10,000 for The River

Three interns won $10,000 for The River Food Pantry yesterday from American Family Insurance’s fourth annual Share Tank Intern Challenge. The American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation funding will empower The River to grow a consistent supply of its own fresh produce throughout the year using efficient hydroponic growing systems.

The winning interns—Casey Olson, AJ Sterlavage and Lexi Bernard, who also received $500 each to help pay for college expenses—first partnered with The River in early July to brainstorm solutions for challenges. As they sought innovative ways to advance The River’s vision of a fully nourished community, the interns also volunteered at The River and with the MUNCH mobile lunch program. Throughout the competition, the team learned that The River is committed to serving healthy and nutritious food, but that providing the freshest food is not always an option.

“One of The River Food Pantry’s dreams is to have a consistent supply of fresh produce to serve to their clients of the market and their MUNCH program,” said Sterlavage during the intern team’s pitch to a panel of judges at American Family’s national headquarters on July 31.

The interns convinced American Family to grant The River funding for two Fork Farms hydroponic growing systems and over two years’ worth of supplies. The energy-efficient, environmentally-stable systems will allow The River to grow leafy greens indoors without soil in quantities of about 25 pounds per month, which is the equivalent of about 800 side salads.

The River plans to distribute the high-quality, nutritious produce to clients in the market, in community meals, and in MUNCH mobile lunches served to children and teens. Requiring about 2–3 hours per month to maintain and harvest, the indoor farming systems also present a hands-on educational opportunity for students and volunteers throughout the community to get involved.

“Thanks to American Family and these bright, passionate interns, The River will better serve thousands of food-insecure households the quality of fresh, healthy food that they deserve,” said Charles McLimans, President and CEO of The River. “We are extremely grateful to Casey, AJ, Lexi and American Family Insurance’s Dreams Foundation for supporting our mission in a way that will have a long-lasting, positive impact on the community and environment.”

View the American Family interns’ Share Tank presentation slides here.

This article was originally published by The River Food Pantry:

Lawrence University

From bees to goats to Flex Farm, LU students lead sustainability efforts

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications with Lawrence University

It’s been the summer of sustainability on the Lawrence University campus, with students front and center in making change happen.

The goats that have taken up temporary residence in the SLUG garden are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

So is the ongoing bee advocacy work that has resulted in Lawrence being certified by the Bee Campus USA program, only the second Wisconsin campus to earn that designation.

Now comes the installation of Lawrence’s first Flex Farm, a hydroponic growing system set up last week by Fork Farms in Andrew Commons. The first planting in the indoor growing container — basil and leaf lettuce — is taking place this week.

The three projects are the very visible fruits of ongoing efforts to make Lawrence a more environmentally friendly campus, efforts that gained momentum when the Sustainable Lawrence initiative was launched two years ago, funded by a grant to transform the campus into a living laboratory of sustainability.

Many of the efforts are student-driven, supported by a Student Sustainability Fund that allows students access to project-based grants, overseen by a Sustainability Steering Committee.

“The goal of Lawrence’s sustainability initiative is to make students, staff, and faculty aware of places where they can make more sustainable decisions and then challenge them to then make those decisions in their everyday lives,” said Project Specialist/Sustainability Coordinator Kelsey McCormick, co-chair of the sustainability committee. “It’s encouraging to see students applying their knowledge and challenging Lawrence to rethink its own processes and decisions.”

Among those students are Valeria Nunez ’22 and Marion Hermitanio ’21, who secured funding through a sustainability grant to bring the Flex Farm to campus.

Students will operate the year-round Flex Farm, with an assist from Bon Appetit, the company that manages the commons. It’s expected that 50 percent of the foods grown will be served to students and the other half will be donated to a local food pantry. The hydroponic system will produce about 25 pounds of greens in each 23-day cycle.

Nunez and Hermitanio, along with members of the Bon Appetit staff, are getting the initial training on the Flex Farm. When fall term arrives, Nunez and Hermitanio will organize a student volunteer program, in conjunction with the school’s Committee on Community Service and Engagement (CCSE), to run the Flex Farm and coordinate the community outreach.

“We both believe that any changes you can make to be more eco-friendly can make a huge difference,” Nunez said of her partnership on the project with Hermitanio.

“We were talking a lot about hunger and how not everyone gets access to fresh, nutritious foods. We saw the Flex Farm as an opportunity to address the food crisis locally by providing these nutritious foods to people in the Appleton area who need it.”

‘It’s a learning curve’
Lawrence students have their fingerprints on all sorts of other sustainability projects this summer.

Floreal Crubaugh ’20 tapped into the Student Sustainability Fund and sought permission from the City of Appleton to bring in goats to help control an overgrowth of weeds in the SLUG garden.

“It’s a learning curve for all of us,” Crubaugh said of using the goats to control the weeds on the east end of the garden. “I’m hoping it’s something we can repeat. Hopefully it won’t get to this point again where it’s so unmanageable. Hopefully, with a combination of just weed mitigation and having this mowed down by goats once in a while we can control it. My end goal is to turn it into a wildflower pollination garden and not just a weed bed.”

Elsewhere in SLUG this summer, Phoebe Eisenbeis ’21 is working on a volunteer program that brings area children into the garden to learn about sustainable agriculture. Amos Egleston ’20 is working with a contractor to fix the drip irrigation system, and Cas Burr ’20 is heading a project to replace the hoop house.

On the bee front, Allegra Taylor ’20 and Claire Zimmerman ’20 are working with biology professor Israel Del Toro on the Appleton Pollinator Project, part of the bee advocacy efforts that recently resulted in Lawrence earning a Bee Campus USA designation from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

And Jessica Robyns ’20 is taking the lead on a pollinator garden and grounds survey at Lawrence’s Bjorklunden property in Door County.

Students come to these projects with deep passions, McCormick said. The Student Sustainability Fund allows them opportunities to put those passions into action.

“Student projects play an important role in helping Lawrence achieve its sustainability goals,” McCormick said. “These projects are often based on the strong interests or research questions from students, and therefore result in deep exploration of a particular topic.”

Sustainability grants average about $2,500 per project, McCormick said. A faculty or staff advisor is assigned to each project to provide oversight, and all grant requests must go through the Sustainability Steering Committee.

“All sustainability grant recipients are also required to complete a final reflection for their project, to inform the Lawrence community what they have learned from the project and what the lasting effects to campus will be,” McCormick said.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: [email protected]