Ready for take off: Boxes of lettuce from IEKHS aquaponics farm are loaded on to an airplane on St. Thomas to be airlifted to St. Croix, February 2017.
Thanks to the efforts of Kirk Lewis, director of the Division of Agriculture in the St. Thomas-St. John district, and students at the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School (IEKHS), the School Lunch Program on St. Croix was recently supplied with fresh, organic lettuce harvested from Kean’s booming aquaponics farm.
Through aquaponics, IEKHS is the first school to join with local farmers to provide freshly grown organic produce to the School Lunch Program. Twenty cases of lettuce were airlifted to St. Croix in the third week of February to supplement the island's School Lunch Program supply. A second shipment of lettuce is expected on March 20.
Now in its third year of operation, the Kean aquaponics farm produces about 300 lbs. of tilapia each year. In addition, it produces a variety of vegetables and herbs, such as kale, collard greens, green onions, water crest, mint, lemongrass, basil and lemon balm.
“For the past three years, we have been providing students with research and learning experiences in aquaponics,” Mr. Lewis, a former IEKHS agriculture teacher, explained. “It provides advanced technology, experimental science, integrated math, business and marketing learning experiences.”
This new link of the territory’s farm-to-school program was made possible through a connection between Ridge 2 Reef Farm’s (R2R) Director Nate Olive, and student-turned-farmer Clemon Lewis, an agriculture teacher at IEKHS who oversees the day-to-day operations of the aquaponics farm, and mentor Kirk Lewis at the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition's (VIGFC) "Food Learn" event held on St. Thomas in late 2016.
The event was modeled after Ridge to Reef Farm's Slow Down Dinner series, in a modified format suitable for generating ideas and discussion among students and school staff on the importance of consuming local, organically produced foods. During the event, Ridge to Reef Farm to School Hub (R2RF2S) pledged to find ways to channel its aquaponics lettuce into the schools. And the shipment of lettuce to St. Croix did just that.
“We have been moving produce around the territory for years, and this is the first time I've seen crops going from ST. Thomas to St. Croix,” said Mr. Olive. “It is an exciting development to see locally produced crops not only provide better nutrition in the schools, but also to witness the entrepreneurial opportunities becoming available to the up-and-rising generations in the USVI."
The Ridge 2 Reef Farm 2 School Hub has been in operation for three years, specifically to meet the needs of the public school system’s need for fresh, local produce. As a famer-run hub, it sells both crops from R2R farm and crops from other production-oriented farms to produce a regiment of healthy, fresh crops for the federal School Lunch Program. To date, more than 12 farms have sold through the R2RF2S hub items, such as tomatoes, lettuce, pumpkins, watermelons, butternut squash, beans, eggplants, kale, and cucumbers.
Kirk Lewis with boxes of lettuce ready to be shipped.
Mr. Lewis hard at work at Kean's aquaponics farm.