Leafy Green Machine growing garden-fresh veggies at CHS

Leafy Green Machine growing garden-fresh veggies at CHS

Vegetables grow in verticle towers, maximizing space in the growing unit.
Indoor facility first in state at public school

CUMBERLAND – A modified shipping container capable of producing a football field’s worth of vegetables every seven weeks now stands outside the kitchen door at Cumberland High School.

The Leafy Green Machine, as it’s called, will bring fresh vegetables to the plates of students at CHS and across the school district, making Cumberland the first public school district in Rhode Island to boast such a facility, according to those who will run it.

Shauna Spillane, food service director for local provider Sodexo, said the hydroponic growing facility is essentially like a “smart home” for food, a “really awesome” facility that keeps vegetables in ideal growing conditions at all times. When it gets too hot in the growing container, the LED lights shut off and the AC comes on. Only the amount of light needed for photosynthesis is used. Air quality is constantly monitored and controlled.

The money to purchase the grow box from Boston-based Freight Farms came out of the food service budget.

Sodexo will manage the growing and picking of vegetables for daily use, but students will be invited to participate in the process. CHS administrators eventually hope to have an agriculture pathway at the school, teaching students about sustainable growing and horticulture.

The Leafy Green Machine, or LGM, allows a variety of crops to be grown regardless of weather conditions, providing students with year-round access to local and fresh produce. Vegetables are grown in vertical rows, requiring minimal water and electricity to flourish. Water drips from overhead spouts onto strips, going down vertical columns to give vegetables exactly the amount that they need. The water then falls into a trough, where it is pumped out.

Gina Rodriguez, food service manager for Sodexo, said employees have typically struggled a bit to put fresh vegetables on the table all winter. Last year was particularly bad, as vegetables often had to be thrown out because they didn’t last, she said.

With the LGM, workers will “pick today for tomorrow,” said Rodriguez. Vegetables typically start losing nutrients the moment they’re picked, she said. The difference will be noticeable in the vegetables picked from the LGM, as they’ll taste better, be a brighter green, and provide more nutrition for students. Because the container is insulated and climate-controlled (about 65 degrees), the entire system uses just five gallons of water a week.

Sodexo currently uses about 200 pounds of leafy greens, mostly for salads, across all schools in Cumberland, including at Blackstone Valley Prep charter school, said Rodriguez. The vegetables harvested from the LGM will be used to supplement the supply.

The entire plant-to-harvest process takes about seven weeks, meaning it can be done several times in a year.

Optimized to grow lettuce, herbs or greens such as kale or Swiss chard, the LGM will initially grow kale and Romaine lettuce at CHS. Spillane said adding something like basil changes the dynamics inside the LGM, because growing the herb calls for slightly different conditions.

The Farmhand App makes farming easier by monitoring, controlling and tracking the indoor farm remotely. Rolling racks allow workers to move the plants for easier access.

Though the LGM is a rarity at public high schools, a number of colleges in New England, including Clark University in Worcester, Mass., have them.

Over the course of a year, the 320-square-foot LGM can grow the same amount of food as about 2 acres of land. Freight Farms, which produces the LGM, promotes its product as a way to grow food in almost any condition all around the world.

The inside of a Leafy Green Machine shows the full operation of vertical gardens, bathed in LED light.
Shauna Spillane, left, and Gina Rodriguez, of Sodexo Food Service, show off the new Green Leafy Machine outside the door of the kitchen at Cumberland High School. The former storage container will be used to grow vegetables for the school’s food service. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)