It’s not uncommon for schools in this province to close on stormy winter days, but the climate in a facility attached to St. Francis School in Harbour Grace is always sunny and warm. It’s a 100 x 40 foot greenhouse, where vegetables are grown from seeds to give students hands-on experience, while also sowing the seeds for a lifetime of healthy eating.
The building is owned by the Eastern School District, with the Lower Trinity South Regional Development Association spearheading the greenhouse project.
Project manager Jill Hiscock says it’s been in operation for 10 years, with healthy eating programs offered for students from four schools in the region in the past three to four years.
“It goes over really well because children will eat what they grow,” Hiscock said.
The students learn about soil and nutrients, how to plant their seeds, and watering techniques.
Hiscock said that might sound simple, but different plants require different techniques. Some seeds are planted deeper than others and some are not even covered with soil to germinate. A greenhouse technician is on hand to provide guidance on the proper techniques.
A stick with each student’s name is inserted into each pot, so that they can care for their own plants and come back in a few weeks and transplant them.
The results of their efforts are fresh produce including tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, peppers, zucchini, squash, lettuce and spinach.
The facility has automatic temperature control, an automatic roof that opens and closes, folding benches and even webcams that give students an opportunity to check on how their plants are doing from their classrooms.
Hiscock said four schools in Conception Bay North have been involved in greenhouse projects — St. Francis School and Harbour Grace Primary in Harbour Grace, Davis Elementary in Carbonear and Persalvic Elementary in Victoria.
Besides healthy eating, the greenhouse has been used to teach students other subjects. For math, they measure how high their plant is, how much it’s grown, and calculate the germination period, Hiscock said.
The webcams have taught them about technology and the greenhouse has even been incorporated into language classes where students write about their plants, from the soil and seeds to essential nutrients.
“The teachers really like it because it covers all the curriculum, even environment — it’s multipurpose,” Hiscock said.
When the vegetables are harvested, the students get to make their own salads, and oil and vinegar salad dressings that contain less fat and sugar than commercial preparations.
Hiscock said some students prefer to eat the vegetables in wraps.
Deborah Ryan, principal of Harbour Grace Primary, says zucchini muffins and cookies have also been a big hit with her students.
“Just the fact there was a vegetable inside a cookie or muffin was pretty interesting for them,” she said.
Ryan said Harbour Grace Primary has been involved with healthy eating programs at the greenhouse in the past two years, but this year, they’re doing something different — science experiments with soils and how plants grow.
The whole school — consisting of about 211 kindergarten to Grade 5 students — have participated in greenhouse programs in recent years, Ryan said.
The building is just across the parking lot from the primary school.
“It went over fabulously,” Ryan said, explaining that it was integrated into many subject areas from health and science to art activities and language art.
“One of the grades actually made their own magazine profiling information about plants and how they grow,” Ryan said.
The science experiments underway now involve looking at how plants grow and how soil, light and water affect them.
“It’s been a really worthwhile program,” Ryan said.
Darlene Tilley, the principal at St. Francis, a grade 6-9 school, said about 20 Grade 6 students are involved in an afternoon greenhouse club.
“They really enjoy it. It’s so interesting to start from seeds and watch something grow,” she said.
When school opens in September, Tilley said, the greenhouse building is pretty empty, but as the year moves through, you can see the greenery from outside, especially the tall tomato plants.
“It certainly creates a lot of enthusiasm and interest,” she said.
With the greenhouse attached to their school, Tilley said, “We have a lot of Grade 6 students who are curious and want to pop out to see how things are growing.”
Hiscock said the greenhouse has received national attention, being the focus of articles published by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Reader’s Digest.
It’s been involved in distance learning, too, and Hiscock said the association is hoping to expand its programs to more schools, depending on how much funding it can obtain.
The site also has an outdoor garden, which Hiscock said could be used as a community vegetable garden.
However, she said, obtaining funding for programs like this is always a challenge.
Hiscock said the association works closely with the provincial Department of Health and its dietitians on the healthy eating programs for children and has obtained funding through provincial wellness grants, but the maximum is around $50,000.
Health Minister Jerome Kennedy recently described the greenhouse project as a great example of a project that teaches children at a young age about healthy eating.
Kennedy said the province’s wellness strategy is about education and awareness and the province is putting “significant amounts of money into wellness programs and wellness grants in an attempt to encourage our children to be active and to eat healthy.”
Environment Canada and the provincial Department of Environment also support the environment and science programs at the facility while the Eastern School District covers the heating costs, which Hiscock said are about $1,000 a month.