Fresh at Foxboro

Jane Rice, kitchen manager at Taylor Elementary School in Foxboro, cuts pieces of lettuce from a Tower
Garden for students’ lunches, located in the school’s kitchen.

By Alexandra Gomes agomes@thesunchronicle.com Nov 30, 2017

With childhood obesity becoming a growing concern, one can’t help but worry for the health of American children.
But children attending Foxboro schools have daily access to fresh produce, thanks to the aeroponic tower gardens located in three of the schools’ kitchens.

The tower gardens were originally conceived by former food service director Allison Johnson, according to current director Janice Watt. Johnson secured grants from Whole Foods and the Foxboro YMCA to purchase two towers, which were later installed at the Taylor Elementary School.A couple months later, Patriot Place donated seven more towers after a Route 1 restaurant with a rooftop garden closed.

Now, three years later, the gardens are flourishing under the care of Jane Rice, kitchen manager at the Taylor School.
Rice, who has always had a green thumb, was trained by Aaron Voog of Harvest Moon Hydroponics, who volunteered much of his time to get the towers up and running.  Rice, who refers to the plants as her “babies,” is primary caretaker of all the gardens, including those located at the high school and Ahern Middle School.
“They kind of have a mind of their own,” she said, referring to the cucumber plants that grow up the walls and around lights.

At the Taylor School, Rice grows tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. While the tomatoes and cucumbers availability varies, Rice grows enough lettuce to use in the salad cart everyday. In fact, Taylor hasn’t ordered any food service lettuce in over a year.  Cucumbers, however, are the kids’ favorite, she said.  “The kids go crazy about the cucumbers,” she said. “So I have to grow a lot of those.”

Rice starts the seedlings for all schools in rock wool before planting them in the tower gardens. Each tower is self-watering, and holds about 20 gallons of water.  A pump disperses the water through the towers, making the gardens easy to take care of, she said. There is no soil — and no bugs — involved.“It doesn’t get fresher than this,” Watt said.  Recently, there has been a big push for schools to participate in “Farm to School” and provide fresh foods for students, according to Watt. However, being located in the Northeast limits the amount of fresh produce available during the school year.

The towers allow cafeteria workers to grow their own fresh produce no matter the season, she said. But they are still limited in how much they can produce due to space.  However, if Rice had it her way, they’d have tons of towers, along with a rooftop garden.  For now, however, local parents can rest easy knowing their children are well-fed, thanks to Rice’s green thumb.