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Nixa elementary students using “tower garden” innovative farming technology to help Christian County food pantry

Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 6:00 PM CDT
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NIXA, Mo. (KY3) - A group of Nixa elementary students is helping supply a Christian County food pantry with the aid of innovative farming technology.

On Wednesday a group of fifth graders gathered at the John Thomas School of Discovery cafeteria for a meal of salad.

Just salad.

But it was actually a taste test.

“Best lettuce I’ve ever had,” declared one student.

But maybe those excellent reviews were so positive because that lettuce was grown by the students themselves.

“Today when we were tasting the lettuce one little kid came up and said, ‘I grew that! I did that! I’m the father!” said Dr. Nicole McCauley, the Founder of the McCauley Foundation.

In a greenhouse behind the school students have been growing lettuce using tower gardens with the help and support of the McCauley Foundation, who makes agricultural ecosystems for non-profits.

Those tower gardens are long tube-shaped cylinders over six-feet tall with holes along the side for the seeds to be placed and a circular base at the bottom that holds water. The tower gardens use 98 percent less water than traditional farming and take up 90 percent less space and its all done without using soil. The nutrients are in the water.

“This is something that was invented for NASA and was how they began growing things on the space station,” explained McCauley. “There are 20 gallons of water and minerals in the base and there’s a pump down in the bottom that brings the water all the way up the center (of the tower) and then rains down over the roots. It goes from seedling-to-harvest in three weeks. You can grow anything that grows above ground that’s not a woody stem.”

And there are other growing innovations as well.

“In our classroom we have aquaponics which is the addition of fish with growing everything,” said JTSD STEAM Educator Joe Shaughnessy. “The nutrients (for the plant life) come from the fish.”

Each one of the tower gardens can grow enough food for 250 people and the school is donating its current-and-future produce to the county’s food pantry, Least of These, which distributed almost two million pounds of food this past year.

“Any food for free is great but healthy food for free is even better,” said Kristy Carter, the Executive Director of Least of These. “I can’t wait to see the look on the faces of the families who are receiving this and I hope to be able to share with them the story of how this came about. It’s going to be a game-changer in terms of families getting fresh fruits and vegetables because this is just the beginning. It’s the start of many harvests to come. I really hope that other school districts in the area and other communities follow in their footsteps. I think it would really make a huge difference.”

It certainly has made a difference to the students.

Some were surprised by their success.

“To me it was, ‘Oh wow! This really tastes good,’” said fifth grader Kierstyn Huff.

And there’s also the satisfaction that their green thumbs are helping to feed the less fortunate.

“Yes,” replied fifth grader Keller Robison when asked if it made him feel better to know where the produce was going. “And it also makes me more eager to do it.”

“It just creates this kind of accountability,” added Shaughnessy. “It’s ‘Hey, we want to learn this because we want to better our community. We want a better future.’ So we’re hopefully planting the seeds of change.”

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