The Menasha Model

Menasha Joint School District (MJSD) Business Manager Brian Adesso had a vision.  He wanted to take the “farm to table” experience that was gaining traction in high-end restaurants and bring it to the high school cafeteria.   If his schools could grow and serve their own leafy greens instead of having them shipped from the other side of the country, it would mean fresher, better tasting, and more nutritious food for his students.

Of course, for this to work they would have to be able to harvest throughout the school year.  That meant having the ability to grow during the long Wisconsin winter months. Brian realized that the solution lay somewhere in the emerging technologies of indoor agriculture.  For the next few years he researched hydroponic growing systems, hoping to find a cost-effective way to bring his vision to life. And while his search uncovered many intriguing options, when he crunched the numbers, everything he found was either too expensive, too energy inefficient, or took up too much space.

Then he met Fork Farms.

In a curious twist of fate, Eric Glad, a teacher at Menasha High School (who was unaware of Brian’s aspirations) happened across a Facebook post about Fork Farms and wondered if their Flex Farm might be a good teaching tool for his classroom.  He scheduled a tour with the Fork team.   His enthusiasm about the upcoming tour began to intrigue others in the District Office and the attendee number soon swelled to a total of thirteen education professionals – including Brian Adesso.

As Business Manager, Brian decides how District money will be spent. So it was with an investigative eye that he joined his peer group of teachers, principals, and administrators on their tour of Fork Farms. When the tour was over everyone agreed that it looked, sounded, and tasted good.   But it wasn’t until he saw Fork Farms’ data on cost and growth rate that he realized his search was at an end. Brian had finally found his solution…and it was practically in his own backyard.

Brian was on board. The teachers who wanted Flex Farms in their classrooms were on board.  But there was one critical group of people that still needed to be convinced that this system would be transformational for their students:  The Cafeteria Staff.

Menasha High School contracts their cafeteria staff through Chartwells, a national food service provider. Sue Malesa is Chartwells’ Food Services Director for the district and it’s her responsibility to make sure the food being served to her kids is safe and nutritious. She scheduled her own tour of Fork Farms.  She spoke with Fork Farms Business Development Manager, Gil Shaw, about the operation, maintenance, and safety of the Flex Farm as well as the quality of the food it produced.

Three days later Brian returned to Fork Farms and ordered nine systems to be immediately placed in schools around the district with an additional eight systems to be placed pending funding.

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.” – Brian Adesso

There was no doubt where the first four systems would go.  Menasha High School Principal Larry Haase saw this ‘indoor farm-to-lunch line’ model as the future for schools across America.  Menasha High School would pioneer the movement.  They had the perfect space for it too.   Inside of the cupola, a dome-like structure at the top of the school, was an empty room no longer used for classes.  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.

Many hands went into making Cupola Crops a success.  School engineers worked with Shaw to install a custom irrigation line using reverse osmosis water for better tasting lettuce.  Food staff, led by Deb Grossinger, received extensive training from Fork Farms in the operation and harvesting of their grow machines.  Sue Malesa worked long hours with her staff to amend Chartwells’ guidelines and protocols to reflect the use of new agricultural technologies while maintaining their strict standards for safety and nutrition.

Four weeks after planting, the first harvest of mixed greens was hauled down from the cupola and onto the lunch line.  Here was perhaps the most critical test of all.  The students were concerned about recent news reports of “bad lettuce” that was being recalled due to e. coli contamination. Malesa placed a sign on the lunch line declaring that this was Menasha High School grown lettuce.  It quickly disappeared.

In addition to Cupola Crops, systems have been placed in schools throughout the district.  Katie Grabner, Science teacher at Maplewood Middle School, was among the first in Menasha to receive a Flex Farm for the classroom. “The growing experience in the classroom has been very positive!  I have enjoyed having conversations with kids about healthy eating.  There is an enthusiasm behind growing something in the classroom. The students who have been helping with the process have a pride when talking to other students about being  the hydroponic grower. It has also been an easy learning curve with wonderful support from Fork Farms.”

The District has even installed a system at the District office on the third floor of the Menasha Civic Center. The Blue Jay Lettuce Crew is supplying fresh lettuce to City employees, district staff, and guests.

Thanks to the partnership between Fork Farms and the Menasha Unified School District, Menasha, WI is becoming a center of fresh lettuce production and decentralized local food systems in the Midwest. Fork Farms is proud to be a part of their inspiring efforts.