Stuyvesant Introduces Garden to Cafeteria Program

The Stuyvesant Environmental Club plans to introduce hydroponic gardens at Stuyvesant as part of their new Garden to Cafeteria initiative.

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By Justine Kang

With the help of biology teacher and faculty advisor Marissa Maggio, the Stuyvesant Environmental Club (SEC) recently acquired several grow walls in hopes of creating hydroponic units that generate fresh and healthy produce for Stuyvesant year-round. These hydroponic units will be placed in several locations throughout Stuyvesant, including Room 739 (Maggio’s classroom) and the cafeteria. This program is an opportunity for school-grown produce to be included in the cafeteria's lunch service.

These hydroponic units will introduce a new type of gardening to Stuyvesant: hydroponic gardening, a form of growing plants in water rather than soil. Nutrients that the plants require are dissolved in the water, allowing the plants to sustain themselves. This allows the plants to be placed vertically, minimizing space and providing a new aesthetic to gardening. The specific type of hydroponic units SEC acquired is grow walls, or rows of plants grown in stacks atop one another on something similar to shelves adapted to a water system.

The SEC received funds for three grow walls through grants from various organizations such as Donors Choose, a platform where teachers can fund proposals by other teachers, the Stuyvesant’s Parent Association (PA), and EcoRise, an organization that provides and creates environmentally-conscious curriculums for leaders and educators.

While money from Donors Choose covered the cost for one grow wall, additional grants and additional money from the PA intended for Stuyvesant’s rooftop garden contributed to two/three more growth walls with a total cost of $1,800. Senior and SEC president Nour Kastoun and junior and Green Team director Calista Lee were awarded an additional $500 from EcoRise. “We applied for an eco-audit public spaces grant [and] approached the hydroponics project from a new angle,” Kastoun said in an e-mail interview.

This will not be the first garden SEC will manage—Stuyvesant also houses a rooftop garden. Since 2015, the garden is used not only to grow vegetables but is also part of the school’s mission to expand environmental education. Following traditional gardening practices, students maintain and care for the plants. “The rooftop garden lets students learn how to grow plants, offers students access and exposure to fresh food, nature, and farming/gardening,” Kastoun said.

The hydroponic units involved in the Garden to Cafeteria initiative are a supplement to the rooftop garden and fills a different niche. Unlike the rooftop systems, the hydroponics units are kept indoors, allowing for vegetables to be grown year-round. “The [rooftop garden’s] harvest season is super small; it’s basically from mid-summer [un]til early fall, and so we’ve been wanting to grow veggies and herbs that we can use and harvest all year long,” Maggio said.

The grow walls will require daily check-ups and maintenance and will need to be tested daily for pH levels and nitrogen levels, which are important factors in plant growth. They also need to be replenished with water consistently.

Because of the high level of maintenance, SEC members are responsible for caring for the vegetables. “[SEC] students will be involved in setting up the grow wall, choosing the herbs and vegetables to plant, and taking care of the plants throughout their growth process,” senior and SEC Vice President Jingyu Zhang said in an e-mail interview.

While the grow walls in the cafeteria are currently under construction and being installed, it is anticipated to be functional by mid-October and arranged in the cafeteria and classrooms for easy viewing.

One of SEC’s main objectives is to use the produce grown from these hydroponic systems in the school’s lunch service. “Whether it’s making some kind of fresh salad or tasting vegetables you’ve never had before, or learning how to prepare a vegetarian meal and taking it home with you and cooking it at home—I’d love to be able to do stuff like that. We just have to figure out how much we’re capable of harvesting,” Maggio said. The idea is still in the early stages and the set timeline is unclear as of now.

Before harvesting and using the vegetables grown, health, safety, and certification requirements must be considered, especially due to the pandemic. “Before the produce is allowed on a lunch tray, the whole system must undergo an authorization process,” Zhang said. “For example, the hydroponic labs would need to be set up and certified, and the food harvested would need to be federally approved for consumption in school as well.”

SEC hopes to use the hydroponic systems as a way to further environmental awareness and participation at Stuyvesant. “We will send out a survey asking what sorts of information they'd like to see, and we will most likely create posters. Some of our ideas include [...] facts about the systems themselves, the plants/herbs we're growing, the environmental impact of hydroponics, and recipes,” Kastoun said. “A lot of people are unaware of the various methods of food production and/or lack exposure to environmental education. One of our main goals with this project is to raise awareness about various methods of food production and the environmental impact of methods like hydroponics.”

While it is not solidified, there may also be a possible construction of a new environmental lab, which would replace the third-floor photography lab, where the grow walls would be placed. “We’re [hopefully going to] have an environmental science suite, so it’s going to be a classroom and a lab. We’ll have full hydroponics and aquaponics, which uses fish water to fertilize and grow the plants,” Maggio said. “That’s the plan right now, but we’re seeing what we can actually do.”

Students express a positive outlook on the Garden to Cafeteria initiative and what it suggests for the future. “When I first heard about this new program, I was kind of surprised, but in a good way. It almost seems like a thing of the future, for schools to grow their own food for school lunches [...] If it works out as expected, it'll be pretty amazing,” junior Nicole Chen said in an e-mail interview. “I hope that [the program] can open up more discussion about ways we can all go green.”

Others are eager to see these systems live. “I’m particularly excited about the hydroponic units; I’ve learned a bit about them before but have never seen them in action. I’ve also heard of some pretty amazing environmental benefits that come from using vertical gardens and hydroponic units, and I’m excited to see all of this develop in our school of all places,” an anonymous junior said in an e-mail interview.

As the Garden to Cafeteria initiative is underway, many expect it to be a slow but rewarding process. “To achieve the ultimate goal of creating a smooth pathway from the grow wall to the Stuy[vesant] student's lunch tray, there is still much work to be done,” Zhang said. “As long as the project keeps going, I'm sure that one day Stuy students can have access to their personal vegetable garden.”