Raised bed garden will supplement middle school meals in Lincoln

LINCOLN – Lincoln Middle School is forging ahead with raised bed gardens to provide fresh produce for school meals, though Food Nutrition Director Valerie Dawson had hoped to receive a $ 50,000 Farm to School federal grant to install an aquaponics system in the greenhouse.

Dawson said she will reapply next year and make sure to “dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s” in her application.

Dawson, with volunteer work from master gardeners and students in the middle school EAST class, already has 35 raised bed gardens in place behind the middle school, with plants starting to go into the soil.

Ivan Huffmaster, EAST facilitator, said his classes did a survey of the students to see what they would like from the garden. Choices included tomatoes, carrots, blueberries, raspberries, cucumbers, lettuce and bell peppers.

Tomatoes and cucumbers have been planted in the 8-foot-by-12-inch containers. Strawberries were going in recently, and watermelons are next. A shady area next to the building is being used for lettuce.

Dawson is excited that with tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce already planted and growing in the beds, the school will be able to make salads from the fresh produce in the future.

She hopes to get more students involved with the garden, saying “if the kids grow the food, they are going to eat it.”

To prepare the garden area, EAST students laid down weed cloth and moved 30 yards of pea gravel to help prevent weeds from growing around the beds. The day was so windy, Huffmaster said that his students had to lay on the liner to keep it down while the gravel was placed on top of it.

This way, Huffmaster said, volunteers will only have to weed the raised beds, not anywhere else in the garden area.

The raised garden beds are galvanized containers that arrived in boxes and had to be assembled. Another project taken on by Huffmaster’s EAST students.

Dawson said her plan is to use most of the produce for the middle school cafeteria to help with the cost of feeding students. If there is enough, she will share the fresh produce with other Lincoln schools.

“The price of food is not getting cheaper,” she said. “This will help us supplement that, and it’s also teaching kids they can do it.”

Dawson said her food costs have gone up 13% -20% over the past year, but she’s still been able to provide meals that are reimbursable by the US Department of Agriculture. For the past two years, because of the covid-19 pandemic, the USDA has waived restrictions for the free and reduced-lunch program so that all students have been able to eat free.

Along with the raised beds, the school plans to use large, used truck tires to plant flowers to attract pollinators for the garden. The tires were donated by Boston Mountain Solid Waste District in Prairie Grove.

Growing up on a farm, Dawson has a personal interest in the school garden and helping students to learn about sustainability. She grew up on her parents’ 160-acre dairy farm.

“That was my childhood,” said Dawson, who was involved with 4-H for many years with her children.

Her family farm now has cattle, horses, chickens and goats, along with a garden that is 20 feet by 40 feet.

“I think a lot of the old ways have gone to the wayside,” Dawson said. “Even when I lived in an apartment, I always had tubs of dirt with something growing in it.”

The school has purchased supplies from Farmers Cooperative in Lincoln, Lowe’s, Amazon and Les Rogers Inc., a landscaping company. The Farmers Cooperative has offered to provide free plants for the beds.

Next year, Huffmaster said he wants students to look at ways to use technology for the garden. Ideas include identification stakes for the plants and instructions on growing different plants.

photo LYNN KUTTER ENTERPRISE-LEADER Ben Gonzalez plants strawberries in one of the raised, galvanized garden beds behind Lincoln Middle School. Gonzalez was an EAST student at the middle school this year and will go to the high school next year. He plans to help out in the garden beds over the summer.

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