Food

PHOTOS: Rupert Elementary students in Pottstown get a taste of agriculture

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Five-year-old Mason Harrison, on the left, and Aiden Ondik,6, eat a salad with greens they grew using an indoor Tower Garden as part of their Rupert Elementary kindergarten class. The young students has a tasting party on May 19 for the produce they grew. Michilea Patterson — Digital First Media

By Michael Sneff, msneff@pottsmerc.com

POTTSTOWN >> Rupert Elementary students are learning about the benefits of growing and harvesting through an indoor Tower Garden.

The Tower Garden is “a vertical, aeroponic growing system,” and “allows you to grow up to 20 vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers in less than three square feet — indoors or out,” according to the product website sheeler.towergarden.com. Tower Garden is a product of Juice Plus, a company that also sells nutrient capsules and powders.

A kindergarten class held a “Harvesting and Tasting Party” on May 19 where students and faculty alike sampled the fully-grown crops. The selection included rainbow chard lettuce, kale, celery and scallions.

These items were also accompanied by various kinds of dips and all the students in the class gave the nutritious vegetables a try. Kindergartner Aiden Ondik, 6, said “Kale is my favorite. It doesn’t taste very good, but it is good for me!”

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“I think it’s super cool,” said student J.T. Ellwanger, 6, who proudly wore a “Tower Garden Expert” nametag around his neck. “Getting to come in every day and seeing how much the plants have grown is awesome and we get to eat them too!”

Kindergarten teacher Jacinda Bartolucci said the indoor growing tower provides an educational value.

“It’s been a learning experience for me as well,” she said. “I’ve learned more from the kids teaching me how it works than I think I’ve taught them. It’s a testament to their willingness and passion for learning, which I think is phenomenal.”

Another Tower Garden “expert” — Rania Aitlqol, 6 — explained the indoor growing process. She said it begins by putting a seed solution called vermiculite into little soilless rock wool “pots.” These pots stay in a plastic container placed on the windowsill, simulating a greenhouse environment until the seeds bud, then they are transferred to the Tower Garden to complete the growing process. Once the seeds are planted in the garden, mineral-rich water is pumped from the bottom up and trickles down to the individual “pods” of seedlings. The aeroponic system means that it uses a mist-like system rather than soil.

Aitlqol said the whole process can take from a couple days to a few weeks, depending on the type of plant they’re trying to grow. Using the Tower Garden system means it uses less than 10 percent of traditional growing nutrients and water. It also produces crops in less time than it takes to grow in soil.

“It’s definitely a plus that it really doesn’t make much of a mess, especially since it’s here in a school environment,” said William “Corky” Sheeler, who has been working with the school on maintenance of the Tower Garden. Sheeler is a representative for Juice Plus, the company that sells the garden.

Because of its tower nature, root vegetables like carrots and turnips can’t be grown but everything else imaginable can be, even things like tomatoes and peas.

Rupert Elementary School was able to obtain the indoor garden during the winter with a $1,000 “Farm to School” grant. David Genova, wellness coordinator for the Pottstown School District, said the grant is an initiative to support farm-to-table opportunities.

“We’re also looking into getting one for other schools in the district and even implementing them into our high school culinary classes. The opportunities are boundless.” Genova said.

Rupert Elementary School Principal Matt Moyer also stopped by the garden tasting party on Friday. He said the fresh produce helps children understand the process of food production.

“I don’t really think that most kids that come to Rupert understand that in some parts of the country, people don’t just go to the grocery store, buy their food and be done with it,” Moyer said.

“Some kids come in and we supply them with almost all their meals for the day,” he explained. “We, as a school, need to make sure that we are instilling in our students the importance of nutrition and eating healthy.”

When kindergartner Ellwanger was asked if he wanted a Tower Garden at home, he enthusiastically exclaimed, “Oh yeah!”

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