Booker Middle launches hydroponics program

"The hydroponics lab right here, right now, will support the cafeteria salad bar," eighth-grade science teacher Devin Slegeski.
“The hydroponics lab right here, right now, will support the cafeteria salad bar,” eighth-grade science teacher Devin Slegeski. Photo by Kat Grimmett

Devin Slegeski held a packet of lettuce seeds up to his eighth grade science class at Booker Middle and asked, “What am I holding here?” The kids responded with conviction: seeds – duh. “Wrong,” Slegeski said. “I’m holding $15,000.”

That’s when everything clicked, Slegeski said. Booker Middle School, located off Myrtle in east Newtown, is building a “school-centered agribusiness,” one lettuce seed at a time.

The vision stretches as far as a small-scale farm across 10 acres of unused Booker-owned property. The pioneers? That would be Slegeski and Sarasota School’s Farm to School coordinator Zach Glorioso.

“We have a green light as long as there’s a plan in place to utilize school-grown food in the cafeteria program,” Glorioso said.

The plan begins with a hydroponic salad bar.

A hydroponic salad bar

Hydroponics is a soil-free, sustainable agriculture technique used to grow produce with optimum nutrient yield and resource conservation.

Slegeski started pestering administration last year about getting a hydroponics lab so students could learn a new way of growing food. They finally agreed, not really thinking it would happen. And then it did.

Slegeski’s seventh period planted four kinds of lettuce in the hydroponics lab on Apr. 13.  “There were kids who didn’t want to go home just to stay and plant, so it was a wonderful reaction.”

In the next couple of weeks, the class will harvest red romaine, oakleaf, curly butterhead and green romaine.

“The hydroponics lab right here, will support the cafeteria salad bar,” Slegeski said. “At optimum production we’ll do two to three cases of lettuce a week, which is about 50 percent of their use right now.”

Homestead Hydroponics in Myakka City provides Booker’s butterhead lettuce in bulk, making up 30 percent of the salad bar. There are plans to double that next year to replace the chopped romaine flying in from California.

“About 35 percent of all of the produce in the cafeteria is Florida-grown,” Glorioso said. “That includes red potatoes and all of our green beans.”

The salad bar at Booker Middle has been ranked highest performing in the district, and that’s including high schools. Actually, Booker is the district’s only middle school with a salad bar. I guess a business involving kids and leafy greens is haphazard. Who knew?

“Everything from the kitchen side of it is based on how many salads can you sell, does it justify putting that extra labor and product out if the salads are not moving?” Glorioso said. “So 50 is our magic number, we need to sell 50 salads a day to justify the extra costs.”

Booker sells an average of 120 salads a day at just $3.50 a pop. “The staff in the back can barely keep up,” Slegeski said.

“When we first planted them they were so tiny in this weird foam stuff.” eighth grader Junior Salgado said.
“When we first planted them they were so tiny in this weird foam stuff.” eighth grader Junior Salgado said.

School-centered agribusiness

Every child in United States eats at least one meal a day in a school cafeteria during the week. With 83 percent of Booker students on free and reduced lunch, it’s a disservice not to offer fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The goal is to support the community, it’s at the heart of why this is here,” Slegeski said. “We’re in the middle of a food desert. I can go to the purple store and get fried chicken and, my god, it’s so good. But I’m lucky if I can get a banana at 7/11. So to be able to give the kids an opportunity to make their own healthy choices and to participate in it beginning to end is so meaningful.”

In November, Sarasota County School’s Food and Nutrition services got a $75,000 grant to promote the Farm to School program. A bulk of that grant will be going towards building school-centered agribusiness in the area.

Slegeski and Glorioso intend to extend the school-centered agribusiness to three schools in Sarasota, including Booker Middle and Booker High.

“We’re talking about a 50/50 sort of scenario, so maybe 50 percent of the harvest would come back into the cafeteria and then the other 50 goes out to community markets,” Glorioso said. “We have an opportunity to recreate our local food system and get the community involved,” Slegeski added.

“It’s called nutrient film technique," Slegeski said. " You see, there’s this little hose right here that’s pumping fertilized water into these channels and that creates this very thin little film of what is effectively nutrients.”
“It’s called nutrient film technique,” Slegeski said. ” You see, there’s this little hose right here that’s pumping fertilized water into these channels and that creates this very thin little film of what is effectively nutrients.”

Education and agriculture

The hydroponics lab is not exclusive to Slegeski’s eighth grade science classes.

“This is an open resource for every teacher on this campus,” Slegeski said. “By next year my goal is to have curriculum in place that teachers can pick and choose from so they can work it into their normal class flow.”

Integral to having a hydroponics program on campus is the career development aspect. Booker students are learning the many different ways today’s agriculture industry grows food, and just how those different ways work.

“When we first planted them they were so tiny in this weird foam stuff.” eighth grader Junior Salgado said. “I like how we’re using a different type of substance to grow these plants.

That bag of seeds Slegeski presented to the kids has impressive potential for production because they come with a 90 percent germination rate. Booker students, starting with Slegeski’s seventh period, are seeing just how green the agriculture business can get.

“This is a building block, we are using these programs as a catalyst to get students involved in the industry,” Glorioso said. “There is a dizzying lack of people qualified to manage green houses or agricultural operations. Like any business, training is a huge expense and takes a long time to learn how to manage.”

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