Northern Saskatchewan school sets up modular farm

Horticulture students transplant romaine lettuce with President's Choice Children's Charity representatives.  |  Dene High School photos

Thanks to the inaugural President’s Choice Children’s Charity Innovation Grant, Dene High School in La Loche, Sask., has a new way to provide its students with healthy breakfast and lunch options.

“It’s actually been really exciting and amazing. I didn’t expect that in addition to being a teacher I’d also be a modular farmer at any point in my life but here we are,” said Dakota de Caux, science teacher at Dene High School. “It’s really just brought a lot of enthusiasm and excitement from me, which rubs off on the students and it’s given them the opportunity to develop new skills that never would have been possible before the farm.”

The 400 sq. foot shipping container-like-box grows produce vertically and can produce as much as 700 to 900 heads of lettuce each week, which is more than enough to feed the students and sell extras to the community, according to de Caux.

Modular space for the program. | Dene High School photos

“Our number one priority of the farm was to provide nutritious meals. We were already providing a breakfast and lunch program but considering our climate in northern Saskatchewan and transportation, things like that, fresh produce is challenging to get your hands on or it’s expensive, or both,” she said. “Since we’ve gotten the modular farm, we’ve been having salads at every lunch and incorporating fresh produce into other dishes for breakfast and lunch.”

Students from the school were interested in the possibility of growing their own food even before the modular farm. According to Lisa Battistelli, executive director of President’s Choice Children’s Charity, they initially asked about building a greenhouse but because of the school year’s winter climate, that wasn’t realistic.

Elayna Mercredi and Kaden Cardinal prepare romaine lettuce seedlings for transplanting. | Dene High School photos

“They wanted to start growing fruits and vegetables so we started to research some growing solutions that would allow them to grow all year,” said Batisstelli. “We went to La Loche to see if (a modular farm) was something they’d be interested in and they were thrilled.”

In the first year of operation, the Dene High School modular farm grew mostly leafy greens like spinach, arugula, kale and a couple types of lettuce. Students also grew herbs like basil, oregano, parsley, chives and peppermint.

According to de Caux, the students adjusted to the healthy food faster than she expected.

Dakota de Caux shows a large head of lettuce harvested for the school's kitchen. | Dene High School photos

“We have this facility that’s going to grow lots of produce and my concern was that it was going to take more time to see that dietary shift,” said de Caux. “But the best part for me has been seeing the kids actually want to eat healthy. Whether they are taking kale off the wall and munching on it, to seeing empty salad containers after lunch, the kids want to eat it, which is awesome.”

Due to the success of this pilot project, PC has allocated $1 million for similar projects. It is already working toward providing two more modular farms to schools by the end of the year, one in British Columbia and another one in Saskatchewan.

Battistelli hopes to one day build a community where students can share their modular farm experiences with each other.

The Dene High School facility has a day-night schedule. This is daytime. | Dene High School photo

“We have made a $150 million commitment over the next decade towards funding to help tackle childhood hunger based on two pillars, food access and food education. This project is showing us that there is so much from an educational standpoint,” said Battistelli. “I think we would love farms at different schools and to have a way to connect those students. Almost to build up a community of students who are experiencing the same thing.”

The $250,000 grant covered the purchase, delivery and set-up of the module as well as the first year of supplies.

De Caux said that by hiring students to run the unit all summer, they should have no problem being able to afford expenses. However, she is still looking at ways of making the farm even more sustainable.

“In terms of what I am involved with purchasing, really we just need to buy the seeds. I’d like to experiment with saving our own seeds, but at this point we are still purchasing,” said de Caux. “But over the long term, I think it would be really amazing to take the farm completely off grid and have solar panels or some other form of green power.”

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