Denver Public Schools’ students will soon be feasting on fresh produce that was grown and handpicked in the district’s backyard greenhouse.
The new greenhouse is a first of its kind in the United States and will grow salad bowl items for students. The 28,000 square foot facility can hold up to 35,000 plants and will begin feeding students next fall, said Hayden Robbins, the greenhouse supervisor.
Theresa Hafner, the district’s executive director for food and nutrition services said the thought of giving students freshly grown tomatoes from the district’s backyard wasn’t possible when she began her career.
“When I started working in food services I never would have thought we’d be buying farm implements, seeds and things like that,” Hafner said. “It’s just amazing.”
Hafner said the idea of a greenhouse originally sprouted a few years ago after seeing the success of the district’s three “on-sight farms.”
“We wanted something bigger, so we took the idea and ran with it” she said.
Initially, the greenhouse will grow several types of tomatoes — cherry, Roma and tomato on the vine — that will be served at the salad bar at each of the district’s schools and can be used for cooking things like marinara sauce.
Hafner said tomatoes were chosen as the first vegetable item because they typically cost more than other vegetables.
Even though the state-of-the-art greenhouse will only grow tomatoes to begin, other vegetables like cucumbers could be grown in the future, said Robbins.
“Once we find out what are needs are for the district we’re either going to transition to other vegetables or have an opportunity to share and provide to other districts as well,” Robbins said.
The district will package each tomato at the greenhouse and then placed into the facility’s walk-in cooler. District trucks will then transport the fresh veggies to the 200-plus schools in the district, said Hafner.
The greenhouse project was approved by Denver voters in 2020 as it was apart of the district’s 2020 Bond Projects. The project is budgeted at $3.1 million, said Tari Gold, a construction projects manager for the district.
Although the greenhouse will offer students fresh produce from the district’s backyard, it could potentially one day also convert into a classroom, Hafner said.
“It’s possible that there could be an (agriculture) pathway in the school’s education,” she said.
The greenhouse initially broke ground in October and is expected to be finished towards the end of May, said Gold. However, Robbins has already started seeding some of the tomato plants in his own home his.
To Hafner, having the greenhouse is an opportunity to show other districts what is possible and is excited to offer students locally sourced vegetables.
“It makes me feel really proud of the innovation that we’re doing here (and) the trust the taxpayers and the Denver voters have put in this type of initiative,” she said. “It feels ground breaking and just makes me feel really proud.”