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Cranbury School aquaponics system continues to grow greens for school lunches

Photos courtesy of The Cranbury School
Greens raised in the beds of the Cranbury School's aquaponics system in Cranbury.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way the Cranbury School operates it has not stopped the harvesting of vegetable greens from the school’s aquaponics system.

The greens grown through this system are still being used for school lunches. The aquaponics system is a method of growing plants without soil.

Aquaponics is a form of agriculture that combines raising fish in tanks with soilless plant culture. Cranbury School third, fourth and fifth grade students had been growing and harvesting vegetables from this system and farm raising the fish prior to COVID-19.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nutrient-rich water from raising fish provides a natural fertilizer for the plants and the plants help to purify the water for the fish.

“Pre-COVID we were putting spinach and lettuce and all kinds of leafy green produce in the school lunches and also donating to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) on a regular basis,” said Susan Shiffman, Cranbury School enrichment teacher. “In 2019, we donated about 27 pounds at each harvest of produce to TASK. This year, because we are not in school the first thing we started to do was grow microgreens (baby plants) and we grew 40-feet of microgreens out of our system that were used in school lunches.”

Dill, cilantro, beets and a mild salad mix were microgreens harvested and used for school lunches. Spinach, red lettuce and arugula continue to grow and are set to be the next group of greens harvested from the system.

“Normally it is our students that do the planting, harvesting and maintaining of the system, but of course that was pre-COVID,” Shiffman said. “Now during the COVID-19 pandemic we are not able to have them do that, because there is no way for me to clean the system and also limit exposure with 10 to 15 kids, who would be on it at the same time.”

Shiffman now does the planting and harvesting herself and she expects to harvest spinach, red lettuce and arugula in the second week in January. The growing of greens will continue through the school year.

“For aquaponics our whole goal is to get students to be environmental stewards of the environment,” she added. “It is a learning living lab that we have in our cafeteria that we can see every day.”

Shiffman is in constant communication with Pomptonian Food Service Director for Cranbury School Peter Castellano, who creates the menu and school lunches.

“I started at the Cranbury School in January of 2020 and ever since then the students when they were in school were hands on in growing vegetables, mixed greens and lettuces. Probably every two to three weeks I would harvest whatever the kids were growing and incorporate that into the menu,” Castellano said. “Mainly on Thursdays and Fridays at the end of the week, I put a little sign up to let the kids know that it was the aquaponic salad they were eating or aquaponic lettuce or tomato on their sandwiches.”

He added that pre-COVID his menu was a lot more eclectic and had a lot more options.

“When school was open Susan (Shiffman) and I would work together. She would ask me what type of herbs I could use for the menu, greens and lettuces. I would plan according to what week she would tell me the herbs and vegetables would be ready,” Castellano said. “I think this system is fantastic. One, it helps me with my food costs and I would say probably out of one harvest I was able to when the school was open feed around 200 kids a day who would come into the cafeteria and purchase a hot lunch.”

According to Castellano, the aquaponics system can yield 20 pounds of lettuce.

“I can take care of a whole day of salads at lunch from the aquaponics system. I remember in February of 2020 the kids planted microgreen cilantro and they told me in three weeks it can be harvested, so I planned in the third week a taco Tuesday and incorporated all the microgreen cilantro with the tacos,” he said.

According to the school, the aquaponics system has been updated. The new aquaponics system, which includes a 600-gallon fish tank and 20 Koi fish, was installed after a donation from the Cranbury Education Foundation.

“The Cranbury Education Foundation purchased a new and improved system in 2018; that is when it was installed. Between the growing beds and the tank itself for the fish it was around $10,000-$12,000,” said Louise Campi-Carroll, president of the Cranbury Education Foundation. “It is part of our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) enrichment efforts.”

The foundation regular raises funds for school enrichment programs every year and primarily raises those funds through the organization’s annual craft show and family donations.

“This is a collective effort. We get over 100 parents to help us with our craft show and without these volunteers we would not be able to do any of this,” Carroll said. “We are very thankful and grateful to all of our parents when they come out and work the craft show for us.”

Koi fish in the tank which is part of the aquaponics system at the Cranbury School.
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