Students to spice lunches with herb garden
By Genevieve Postlethwait

Thanks to recently implemented national nutritional guidelines, students at McCracken County High School can’t season their school food with salt or mountains of ketchup or ranch dressing.

Students’ options are limited when it comes to doctoring their school lunches, but only about 100 feet behind the county high school students are growing something they hope will put a little flavor back into their food: an herb garden.

Their garden grows in a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse devoted solely to the cultivation of vegetables – and now herbs – to supplement the high school’s lunch offerings. Another, smaller greenhouse sits adjacent to it and is devoted to spring bedding plants that the school’s agriculture students sell.

The greenhouse, which the school brought over from Lone Oak High School, is the largest high school greenhouse in the state and is cared for by the state’s largest high school agriculture department.

Though temperatures have begun to drop as fall draws to a close, the greenhouse is 70 and sunny inside year round, something the students seem to enjoy almost as much as the plants. Right now students are caring for raised beds full of three kinds of lettuce, squash, cucumbers, pepper plants, and four varieties of tomatoes, all used to supplement the cafeteria’s boxed salads.

“The kids harvest everything themselves,” said Coye Elliot, one of the school’s four agriculture department advisors. “It takes a couple of hours a day just to keep up with it, and that’s with 40-something kids at a time. The tomatoes have to constantly be messed with, the lettuce has to be sprayed, plus anything that needs pest control or weeding. There’s a lot that has to go on in the course of a school day.”

The herbs have only just been planted, but should be ready come spring. The students hope to offer their classmates a “herb bar” full of things like mint, parsley and other spices they can use to add flavor to their nutritional, but sometimes bland school meals.

McCracken and public schools throughout the Purchase area and across the nation have had to adjust their meal offerings to meet new nutritional guidelines established by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Schools had three years to implement the guidelines, beginning with the first round of changes in the 2012-2013 school year. The final round of changes took effect this year, including tight sodium restrictions. Some schools had a harder time than others getting students to eat the new, healthier foods, though McCracken seemed to have an easier time than others.

“The school salads are already a huge hit,” said McCracken senior and agriculture student Caeleigh Whitworth.

“It’s caused a bit of a stir among the students, knowing that hey, these salads come from here!” Elliot said. “Students seem more willing to eat salads or vegetables because they know it came from here, just 100 feet away from their school and not from hundreds of miles away. I think it’s almost more of a mental shift than it is a difference in taste.”

Elliot, who taught at Lone Oak High before the consolidation, said he and his Lone Oak students tried out the student-grown garden operation on a smaller scale with its bigger future at McCracken in mind. Through trial and error, they arrived at their current system which Elliot only sees growing in the future.

“We started planting in August,” Elliot said. “When this is up and running full steam in probably another month, we’ll be able to supplement the entire cafeteria with tomatoes, lettuce, squash and cucumbers, plus the addition of the herb bar in the spring.”

Elliot’s students take pride in their work and seem genuinely excited to be out in the greenhouse.

“We’re out here every day, working hard, and we get to see where it’s all going,” said McCracken senior and greenhouse manager Grant Lawson. “We know our work is paying off.”

“It really makes you appreciate your food,” Whitworth added. “You get to see where your food comes from. You know exactly what’s put into it. You know there are no chemicals that are going to harm you. It’s all fresh and organic. We’re proud of it.”

McCracken Co. High School’s herb garden, tended by students, will put some spice back into sodium-restricted school meals