Alaska school district grows fresh food and supports local employment

At a few remote Alaska schools, produce ranging from tomatoes and squash to bok choy and cilantro is grown in greenhouses heated by wood-fired boilers.

This provides fresh greens and vegetables for the school lunch program in communities where some residents have to drive two hours, one way, to the nearest grocery store.

Southeast Island School District’s initiative has also increased employment for the remote communities it serves on Prince of Wales Island.

The district hires local citizens and high school students to stoke the boilers during the long winter months.

“When we started offering this food at lunch, students weren’t interested” says Superintendent Lauren Burch. “Now, they will protest loudly if the salad bar isn’t open. It’s neat seeing this change in their dietary habits.”

Firing them up

Originally, the district heated schools with the wood-fired boilers, which were purchased through state grants and the Alaska Energy Authority.

Then a few years ago, Burch thought of using boilers to heat a greenhouse for growing food at the Thorne Bay School, the district’s largest building.

As the initiative gained momentum to heat greenhouses at other schools, Southeast Island received grants from Grant Wood AEA and the state, including $49,000 for heat recovery.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development provided two grants:

$30,000 for an orchard, small greenhouse and horticulture curriculum, which was developed in collaboration with University of Alaska Fairbanks
$56,175 for a larger hydroponics greenhouse

Meanwhile, a regional healthcare consortium’s $10,000 grant funded greenhouse materials. The Rasmuson Foundation, a philanthropic organization in the state, also granted $25,000 to outfit the largest greenhouse, which is located at Howard Valentine Coffman Cove School.

District staff installed the boilers and built the greenhouses, instead of putting the project out to bid, which lowered the cost from $400,000 to less than $100,000.

“It’s good to have a plumber on staff, but he or she needs to be competent” says Burch. “If you install the wood boilers incorrectly, you can blow up half the school.”

Trees, critters and fish

Aquaponics, powered by the waste of inexpensive goldfish, provides fertilizer for the greenhouses. State law prohibits fish farming and the use of tilapia—the usual choice for such facilities. The district has considered buying $5 koi and later selling them for a profit, but the fish survival rate needs to improve, Burch says.

“I sometimes lose a hundred goldfish if students forget to feed them or if the water gets contaminated” she says.

Most of Southeast Island’s schools have chickens, and the district plans to include the eggs produced in its food program. Currently, students sell eggs to the local community. Other campuses keep ducks and geese, and one has Angora rabbits.

Most schools also maintain gardens that produce blueberries and potatoes.

At Howard Valentine Coffman Cove, students planted 100 mature apple, pear and cherry trees. This orchard, supported by a $13,000 grant, is now surrounded by a fence to prevent wild animals from gnawing on produce.

Every week, at the largest greenhouse, students sell surplus food. “Everything is bought within 30 minutes” says Burch. “The community supports this very nicely.”

Reducing oil, increasing employment

Every cord of wood in the boilers offsets 120 gallons of diesel fuel, which has helped six of Southeast Island’s eight schools eliminate diesel consumption. The district also pays students to chop down trees for cordwood.

Some students use their earnings to participate in school sports as the district does not fund travel to “away” games.

If the district had purchased complex heating systems that use expensive pellets, Burch would have had to hire professionals for monitoring and maintenance.

“This way, the dollars stay in the community and keep students in school because they now have a way to make money” says Burch.

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