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How hydroponic gardens in schools are bringing fresh produce to students

School farms seek to address food insecurity
Wisconsin school farms seek to address food insecurity 03:10

Inside the cafeteria at Ashwaubenon High School near Green Bay, Wisconsin, past the tater tots and fried chicken sandwiches, students have access to a salad bar filled with home-grown produce.

The vegetables were planted and picked just down the hallway, where a no-soil indoor hydroponic garden runs on circulating water, special nutrients and LED lights.

"Fresh food can be grown easily in Wisconsin in the middle of winter," said Kaitlin Taurianen, nutrition coordinator for Ashwaubenon School District.

Taurianen says the indoor farm produces around 850 pounds of produce per month, which is enough to feed up to 2,000 students throughout the district.

"A lot of our kids aren't exposed to fresh foods at home, just because it's financially hard for the families to purchase those kinds of things," Taurianen said.

The innovative system stemmed from the imagination of Wisconsin native Alex Tyink. Trained as an opera singer, he got into rooftop gardening in New York City between gigs. Then he decided to use what he had learned to start a company called Fork Farms, with the aim of helping people grow their own food.

"Food is already having to travel further and further to get from seed to plate. Our food system is failing us," Tyink said.

That's why Tyink sees the 2,500-year-old technique as the water-and-land-efficient farming of the future.

As nearly 1 out of every 8 households faces food insecurity, according to the USDA, Tyink says units like the ones made by his company can get people fresh food faster.

Mark Geirach received grants to buy two of the $5,000 devices for the food bank he runs near Milwaukee.

"As the cost of food continues to rise, it becomes more valuable than anything else," Geirach said. "If you have the opportunity to have fresh produce on the table, versus something canned or processed or nothing at all, how much better is life for you? And that's what we try to do. We try to make life better."

In Milwaukee Public Schools, where officials say more than 80% of students are economically disadvantaged, 80 flex farms have sprouted.

"That's where it gets really exciting, because now you have a community of people that are doing this together and they're learning from each other," Tyink said.

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