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Fresh salad greens even in winter for Willmar, Minn., students (video)

Willmar High School senior Aaron Privette, 18, puts some greens on his hamburger Monday during lunch in the school cafeteria. The greens came from the Willmar Community Greenhouse located at the MinnWest Technology Campus. Operated by the school district and staffed partly by volunteer students, the greenhouse is providing fresh vegetables and salad greens for the district's food service program. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)2 / 3
Michelle Synhorst, Willmar School District nutritionist, left, visits the Willmar Community Greenhouse that is providing fresh greens and vegetables for the district's food service program. Aaron Larson, right, is a part-time employee at the greenhouse located on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. Up until this year, the greenhouse was operated solely by volunteer labor. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)3 / 3

WILLMAR -- Hannah Bateman makes herself a chef's salad for lunch nearly every day in the Willmar Senior High cafeteria.

Often, the salad includes bright, fresh greens from the school district's greenhouse on the MinnWest Technology Campus.

"It's pretty nice," Hannah said as she dug into her salad on Monday.

Hannah, a 16-year-old junior, said she can tell on sight if the greenhouse produce is being used on the cafeteria's salad bar.

"It looks a lot fresher ... it's greener," she said. She and her friends think it's better tasting, too.

Other students in the cafeteria agreed that they enjoy the fresh greens and notice the difference when they get other lettuce between harvests.

About 165 pounds of salad greens and other vegetables have been harvested and brought to the high school so far this school year. The greenhouse grows a variety of crops, including arugula, spinach, broccoli, beets, kale and Swiss chard.

The fresh greens provide students with food that is more nutrient-rich, keeps dollars in the community and requires less energy to ship from source to consumer.

Michelle Synhorst, the school district's nutritionist, said a sign in the cafeteria tells students that the greens come from the Willmar Community Greenhouse.

Head Cook Bonnie Nordmeyer said the greens have always been put to good use at the Senior High. "We've never had a bad batch," she said. "How lucky are these students, to get lettuce from two blocks away."

Lettuce purchased from a vendor comes already chopped, but the cafeteria staff cleans and washes the fresh greens. The extra work is worth it, Nordmeyer said.

In between harvests, the cafeteria serves bagged lettuce from its suppliers, usually a blend of iceberg and romaine. It would be very expensive to purchase the types of greens harvested in the greenhouse, Synhorst said.

The purchased lettuce blends are fine, Nordmeyer said, "but this is so much nicer."

In addition to the salad bar, students can put the fresh greens on their hamburgers. It's also put into sandwich wraps and tacos.

The Senior High cafeteria provides meals for Community Christian School in Willmar, and the students there have received the fresh greens, too. If there's more than the Senior High can use, it's sent to the Middle School cafeteria. None of the fresh food goes to waste, Nordmeyer said.

The greenhouse was formerly part of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center. After the treatment center closed and the technology campus came into being, the greenhouse went unused.

A team of students participating in the Youth Energy Summit program sought permission in 2007 to clean up the greenhouse and use it. "This is all MinnWest's property," said high school science teacher Rob Palmer, but the school district is allowed to use the greenhouse for the cost of utilities. There's also an agreement to take care of the campus's flowers.

Grant funding and donations from community businesses and individuals got the greenhouse back into operating shape.

Once the greenhouse was up and running, Palmer approached Nutrition Director Annette Derouin about providing greens for the school district.

"I said, 'If you're going to grow it, we'll use it,'" Derouin said.

For a long time, the greenhouse ran on volunteer labor, but this year the food service hired Aaron Larson to work part-time in the greenhouse along with Palmer. Students continue to volunteer in the greenhouse as well.

Larson, a 2009 Willmar graduate, started volunteering at the greenhouse while he was in high school. He kept volunteering after graduation.

"We've got the whole growing thing down, now that Aaron's on board," Palmer said.

Larson said this winter brought the best harvests the greenhouse has had, and they've found that the salad greens crops tolerate cold weather quite well. The harvest has been plentiful, "about 17 pounds every two weeks," he said.

Aphids created a challenge in the greenhouse this winter. After some research, the nutrition service placed its first ever order for something that was alive. Thousands of lady bugs are now eating aphids and breeding in the greenhouse.

The aphids only seemed to like some crops, Larson said, so he was able to keep harvesting some of the greens all winter.

The greenhouse gets its heat from several sources, including the sun shining through the walls. There's a biomass boiler, which burns wood pellets, popcorn and soybeans, along with other fuels. Movie theater leftovers provide a plentiful source of fuel.

Solar panels outside the greenhouse were donated by the tech campus. The mix of power sources is "what the future is probably going to look like for everybody," Palmer said. "We won't be able to rely on fossil fuels anymore."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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