Students Nomsa Nganang, Calum Shah, Sophia Pellegrino, Jack Sunderland and Ava Wemple in Hopewell Elementary School’s hydroponic garden.

For “Take Your Parents to Lunch Day” earlier this month, Hopewell Elementary School students picked basil from the school’s vertical farm that was later featured in a deconstructed caprese salad. It is the latest item to be added to the school’s organic homemade lunch menu, available three times a week, with vertical farm produce infused into two of those three meals.

Hopewell Elementary’s engagement in hydroponics, the urban farm practice of growing produce in a nutrient-dense solution with no soil, is among its latest sustainability efforts for which it was recognized with the 2018 Best of New Jersey Farm to School award by the NJDA and Secretary of Agriculture.

The school teamed up with Dr. Paul Gauthier, founder and director of the Princeton University Vertical Farming Project, to build its hydroponic vertical farm. The onsite, indoor vertical system has been fully functioning since September, providing students with organic produce for lunch and an invaluable multifaceted hands-on scientific experience.

“The kids are involved in everything from planting to maintaining, to measuring PH levels, to harvesting and consumption in the cafeteria,” says Principal David Friedrich. The farm is currently growing various types of lettuce, spinach, basil, cilantro, dill, bok choy, several varieties of strawberries and lunchbox peppers.

The vertical farm has become a center piece of the school’s plant-based curriculum that supports next gen science standards, says Helen Corveleyn, the school’s K-5 STEM facilitator.

“There are so many applications that fit in naturally, so it’s not creating a project for kids to do and look at it at one isolated time. It’s crossing over into all walks of science,” she says.

Students learn about the engineering process, lighting and electromagnetic spectrum, human impact of food waste in addition to the obvious life science connections.

“Tracing the stages of the plant life cycle is lot easier to do hydroponically than it is in soil farming because you’re actually seeing the seed coming out of the seed kernel,” says Corveleyn.

Gauthier believes this visual aspect of the farm makes the produce more appetizing. “There’s something magical about growing your own food. I believe if people see where plants grow, they’re more likely to eat it,” Gauthier says.

“Seeing kids excited about lettuce means something to me because at Princeton, we recently had an event with pizza, and as soon as there was green on it, nobody was taking them.”

Corvelyn has noticed that the farm has allowed her students to feel positive peer pressure for eating healthily. “My kindergarten class will come in and their palates aren’t developed yet, so when they’re offered something from the garden, they’ll see the guy next to them eating it, so they’ll eat it too.”

Other benefits of the farm include consistency in growing and teaching, and the ability to control water and nutrient input.

“Environmentally, you can save on water because there is no run-off. At the same time, you can control the nutrients and light,” says Gauthier.

He explains that adjusting nutrient levels and light spectrum and intensity has been instrumental in determining taste of the produce.

“For lettuce, I recommended special white lights with high intensity. Of course, plants will grow if you get pink light, but the taste won’t necessarily follow. So white light, broad spectrum at high intensity will make the lettuce leaves slightly thicker and darker and sweeter.”

The “sweet” lettuce, the farm’s most popular produce, accounts for 50 percent of the lettuce that students consume for lunch. “We want to eventually be self-sustaining on our lettuce so we’re not buying lettuce from anywhere else,” Friedrich says.