5th graders learn to feed their entire school - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

5th graders learn to feed their entire school

Source: Donna Britt Source: Donna Britt
Source: Donna Britt Source: Donna Britt
Source: Donna Britt Source: Donna Britt
Source: Donna Britt Source: Donna Britt
Chef Pat Mahon (Source: Donna Britt) Chef Pat Mahon (Source: Donna Britt)

Episcopal School Chef Pat Mahon steps away from the school’s main buildings and through a wooded area. Before him is a skeleton of aluminum with double layers of plastic stretched around it. Inside, there are what look like trays and trays of vivid green.

We are in the 5th Grade’s hydroponic laboratory, a greenhouse.

“This butter crunch is just perfect! See? It is unbelievable. I have enough lettuce to make it through to next year.”

Chef Pat, as he prefers to be called, is showing me the source of the freshest lettuce ever on the cafeteria salad bar. I marvel at the neat rows where lettuce is in various stages of growing. 

On the sides of the sections, a card lists when the seeds were started, when they were planted in the trays, when they’ll be ready for harvesting. It’s the science lesson of Sonny James, a veteran teacher with an imaginative approach to science. He teaches math, botany, physics of hydrology, a little economics…it’s a multi-faceted lesson tool.

Chef Pat shows where the flowing water originates. It’s a plastic covered tub.

"This is where we keep everything covered," he said. "And all they’re doing is putting in the nutrients and it comes through, runs on back comes back in circulates back out." 

As Mahon talks he gestures to the plants, then to the pipe system that runs underneath and alongside the tables.

"It also aerates, is that important?" I ask.

"You’ll have to ask 5th grade. They know the science part of this," he smiles.

Mahon and Sonny James had talked for a couple of years about trying a greenhouse. To learn about how to do hydroponic, they contacted Jim Hadden with Feliciana Greenhouses. Chef Pat said Hadden helped them immensely.

The green house is now in operation and hitting its stride. Mahon says it has been a gold mine for the school.

"The high school is having thesis reports written on our costs because what we want to do is create a website with the information. You need X amount of footage to feed X amount of kids at a cost of this. And anyone can get the How-To."

"The real key for me is I want to make it pay. You can’t put a number on the educational value, but for me the lesson that is learned is an economic one.  Is this sustainable?"

Mahon figures in five years, the garden will have paid for itself.

"For nutrients and seed," he says. "It costs us a nickel a head. Now on the flip side, we’re 26-thousand dollars into the green house and operations. But right now, lettuce is in a bad spot in the season, so it’s about $50 a case. It’s $2 a head (on the market) this time of year. I’m averaging at my costs about a buck a head (figuring in the cost of the greenhouse over time)." So even when he figures in the cost of building the greenhouse, he can still see an advantage, and the product, the lettuce is beautiful."

I marvel at a PVC pipe a little bit bigger than your arm rising about 7 feet in to the air. There are heads of lettuce growing out of little ports that have been made in the vertical tube.

Chef Pat says it’s another innovation of the 5th Grade science classes.

"That’s one Sonny James created with his 5th graders. The water comes up to the top, using an aquarium pump, and filters down vertically. He puts it in the little cups and they grow out. What we want to learn about, there is a vertical system which would be more efficient with our space. This space here, is for them to try to calculate over the years, will this perform as well or better than the horizontal trays. Can we fit more in the greenhouse? Kids will do math, study results and decide."

So when students eat from the salad bar at school, they can thank the 5th grade. But they also need to thank educator Sonny James and a chef who wants good ingredients at the best price.

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