TOWNSEND -- Armed with a $20,000 grant for a new greenhouse, a group of North Middlesex Regional High School students are seeking to expand access to healthy, local food for those in need in the community.
Students in the school's service-learning program already use the school's courtyard garden and a small attached greenhouse to supply local food pantries with produce, but with a new, larger greenhouse, they will be able to provide that service year-round.
Last year, student coordinators wrote a grant application, and when it was approved this year by the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, a new class of seniors picked up the torch, working out the logistics so that the greenhouse can be built this spring.
Seniors Marina Schied and Jordan Keating coordinate the community garden program.
The new space, they said, will enable them to grow more plants which can be donated year-round. By utilizing vertical growing techniques, they hope to maximize the space.
"We'll have more room, we'll be able to grow more plants -- just in bulk basically -- and we'll be able to use vertical structures to grow and it'll be year round, so it'll be great," Scheid said.
The greenhouse will be movable, so that if a new high school is built in the coming years, the greenhouse can be easily relocated.
Keating said they are also trying to make the building solar-powered, despite a higher cost.
"It's both environmentally friendly, and it helps us become more independent," Keating said.
Service-learning advisor Ray Kane said that despite the higher price, solar power and other sustainability efforts are critical to the project's message.
"We're trying to keep the greenhouse sustainable because we have to practice what we're talking about. We may need to shrink the size if we want to maintain our values. Values are important. It's worth knowing that we are really trying to incorporate our beliefs," Kane said.
The group donates its food to local organizations, including Pepperell Aid from Community to Home and Townsend Ecumenical Outreach. Last year, students donated about 1,200 pounds of food.
Eventually, Kane said, the students are hoping to work with school food service provider Whitson's to stock organic produce in the district cafeterias.
"We need to find a way to maintain our commitment to the TEO and PACH, but also integrate this opportunity to open up conversations with our food service provider," Kane said.
Although the program is run primarily by service-learning students, it is open to anyone in the school or community who would like to help.
The program is funded entirely through grants and fundraising, and staffed year round by students who stay after school and come in throughout the summer vacation to tend the garden.
"It's 90 percent student-run and student-directed, which is really powerful. What a feather in their cap, and a great opportunity to develop real-world skills," Kane said.
"There's a therapeutic aspect of digging in the dirt and really caring about something. You know what you're doing matters."
In addition to being good for the students who participate, Kane said the garden is filling a need within the community.
"Addressing hunger in our community is ultimately about health. It's an organic garden, we've taken all the chemicals out to provide open access to better options for people who are food insecure and hungry. This gives them an opportunity to have food that they wouldn't normally have, just because it's more expensive," Kane said.
Ultimately he said the project has enriched both the school and the community.
"Spaces like this are more needed in schools," Kane said. "Having things growing is healthy for people. A few years ago, it was just an overgrown courtyard with no real use, and now it's really functioning in a great way to support people."