At Baltimore County schools, a week for 'homegrown' lunches

This aeroponic tower located near the entrance of Lutherville Laboratory is growing a variety of lettuce, which will be eaten in a few weeks by the school's fifth graders, once it is fully grown.
This aeroponic tower located near the entrance of Lutherville Laboratory is growing a variety of lettuce, which will be eaten in a few weeks by the school's fifth graders, once it is fully grown. (Rachael Pacella / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

In addition to the strawberry-flavored dried cranberries and applesauce, students in the lunch line at Lutherville Laboratory elementary school on Sept. 23 could chose to eat a bag of fresh cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes grown on a local farm.

The students also received a sticker reading, "I ate local food today!".


Kindergarten teacher Gretchen McGee said her students were thrilled with the sticker — and with the special addition to lunch.

"They were all excited," she said. "It's just a good way to promote where food comes from."


During the week of Sept. 19-23, schools in Baltimore County, along with those in other systems across the state, participated in Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week, during which students were offered local produce from area farms at lunch.

Cantaloupes, green peppers, honeydew and yellow watermelon from Shlagel Farm in Waldorf were on the menu at schools county-wide, as well as cherry heirloom tomatoes from Hess Farms in Virginia and white corn from Godfrey Farms on the Eastern Shore.

The week drew attention to Maryland's Farm to School program, which brings locally produced food to cafeterias, provides hands-on learning, such as farm visits, and integrates food-related education into the classroom, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's website.

Baltimore County always tries to serve fresh local food in its schools, according to Baltimore County Public Schools Director of Food and Nutrition Services Karen Levinstein. This fall has been difficult, she said in a statement, because a lack of rain and extreme heat caused area crops to finish one month earlier than usual. Despite that, all county schools were able to feature local produce at lunch last week.


The celebration of the statewide program also drew attention to a separate Baltimore County initiative to add edible gardens to local schools, which the county promoted on its website alongside Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week. While this year a few dozen gardens exist at schools around the county, next year the gardening program will be countywide as part of a new elementary science curriculum, science department officials said. Although all schools won't have large gardens, all will have at least something similar to a table-top growth station, which would include items such as tubes in which to grow plants in different substrates, so students can experiment and learn about growing methods and plant traits.

Both the Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week and gardening program help bridge a disconnect between the public and farmers, officials said, adding that some students don't know where or how their food is grown.

"They just go to the grocery store and don't realize the effort it takes to produce the food that we consume in the United States," said Baltimore County Public Schools Elementary Science Coordinator Eric Cromwell.

At Lutherville Lab, in Lutherville, students already see an example of a non-traditional gardening method every day as they enter school. Near the building's entrance is a plastic tower, about five feet tall, through which air and water are constantly cycling and in which is growing a variety of lettuce, including baby romaine and royal red.

As students walk in and out of the building, and pass the tower on the way to the cafeteria, they're able to see the lettuce growing over a period of four to six weeks. The device, called an aeroponic tower, is illuminated from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, providing plants with light. The tower cost about $950, teachers said; to help pay for it the school received a $500 grant from the American Italian Society, and a $250 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Stopping to gawk at and photograph sunflower fields in the Baltimore area has become so much of a thing that police asked people not to park on the roadsides. They do anyway.

The school planted its first crop in the tower in April. Last school year, it had a "salad day" for about 70 students who are members of the school's garden club, using lettuce grown in the tower.

The school's 5th graders are responsible for the current batch of lettuce growing in the tower, and when its ready in a few weeks the students will celebrate with another salad day, according to school officials.

"They're more willing to try the vegetables they're growing," said Deidre Austen, magnet coordinator and STEM resource teacher at Lutherville. "It empowers them as well."

Growing the program

When Cromwell came to Baltimore County Public Schools six years ago, he said he began a "journey" to change the county's policies to allow produce grown at schools to be consumed by the students. Before the program was developed, schools were allowed to grow whatever they wanted, Cromwell said, but students weren't allowed to eat the produce.

"The real reason I wanted to do it is because that's how I got my start in science; my first grade teacher gave us milk cartons and we put watermelon seeds from lunch that day into it and we started growing watermelons," he added. "And the fascination of watching something, this inert looking seed, grow into a living thing was very powerful for me, and something I also wanted to see our students get engaged in."

"There were a lot of concerns about allergies, and concerns about rodent infestations and all these other things that were associated with it," he said. "That pretty much put us on a three-year journey to write a set of guidelines that will allow students to consume what they grow."

Those guidelines set up a four-tiered system for gardens around the county — the options range from something small, such as a Dixie cup growing a plant on a window sill, and to something large, like an outdoor garden. In between are methods like gardening in a raised table on wheels, or in planters on a cart.

"You can grow pretty much anything you could grow on a farm in a container," said the system's elementary outdoor science teacher and naturalist, Dawn Dawson.

Immaculate Conception School in Towson has been named by the U.S. Department of Education as a national blue ribbon school, one of only 50 private schools nationwide to receive the prestigious award.

The guidelines also require food to be prepared by a person who is certified in food safety.

There are about 25 active school gardens in the county, according to Dawson, adding that the figure is hard to pin down because some schools are currently adding gardens. This is the third school year during which Baltimore County will have edible gardens in schools, as part of a pilot program.

The program will expand next school year, when every third grade student will have a unit about natural selection and heredity that is tied into gardening, Cromwell said. For example, students might look at how an apple could be green or yellow, Dawson said, or how tomatoes can be round or long. Students will also look at how plants grow in different conditions.

The gardening unit will also be heavily integrated with math, Cromwell said. For example, students might need to look at a plant's rate of growth and calculate how to grow enough to feed the entire school, as an exercise.

A previous version of this story misspelled Shlagel Farms, and incorrectly identified its location.

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