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Schools are focused on growth, whether nurturing students’ intellectual progress, spurring physical maturation or teaching social strength in the community. The hope is to produce a bumper crop of kids well-prepared for a challenging future.

Meanwhile, many school districts struggle to feed their students nutritious meals because of funding challenges, supply chain woes (especially for vegetables and fruits) and finding enough workers to make and serve the food. 

Wisconsin-based Fork Farms has come up with a solution adopted by more than 800 schools across the U.S., including some here on the Front Range: Have students grow fresh produce in the classroom. 

“Our mission at Fork Farms is empowering people to grow their own food,” says Lalu Beré, brand vice president. “Not only does it provide education, but our ‘farms’ produce enough food to affordably feed a community.” 

Fork Farms produces the Flex Farm, a hydroponics unit that grows plants in two half-moon vertical chambers, with water and nutrients circulating through the system. 

“What makes Flex Farm unique and so efficient is a large LED light tower in the middle,” Beré says. “Light is recaptured within that cylinder creating an optimal, controlled growing environment for the plants.”

The Flex Farm is not just another educational tool. The mobile hydroponic system can grow a significant amount of food, averaging 25 pounds of lettuce every 28 days, year-round. “For a school, it can offset the cost of sourcing greens from a food service distributor because it can grow popular salad bar items for less than $1 a pound,” Beré says. This is especially important in the winter when school districts can face a 20% to 50% price premium to buy leafy greens. 

Flex Farms are not inexpensive, clocking in at just under $5,000. But there are ways to offset the investment, according to Beré.

“Many of our partners — especially teachers — look for grants outside of their school or organization to fund the purchase. School nutrition programs are funded out of the school meals budget, so it’s a little easier. They’re seeing a return on that investment within two years, because the farm is so efficient,” she says. 

Here on the Front Range, administrators at Jefferson County Public Schools are running a pilot program with a Flex Farms unit. According to Beth Wallace, Jeffco’s executive director of food and nutrition services, the 150-school region is exploring how the hydroponic system “may be used in a large school district.” The first harvest from Jeffco’s Flex Farm was sent to a “handful of sites” operating a Summer Food Service Program, which provides free breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner to youth in Colorado all summer long.

“Lettuces were used in our salad recipes and students also tested a caprese-type appetizer with the basil that was grown,” Wallace says.

While Jeffco students aren’t currently getting hands-on learning with the Flex Farm, Wallace says part of the project’s focus is to understand “any learning experiences that might be coordinated with the pilot.”

“For the coming year,” Wallace says, “we plan to continue this as a pilot for investigating possible processes for growing the greens and how to distribute them safely to sites.”

Although hydroponic systems look high tech, there is a misconception that the process is complicated and time consuming. “It’s actually simple and pretty straightforward,” Beré says. “Typically, someone needs to spend about 20 minutes a week checking water pH and nutrients, maybe a total of two to three hours a month.” Every Flex Farm comes with enough seeds for about three months of planting plus the nutrients needed to make that farm run. The company offers a wide range of greens and vegetable seeds, according to Beré. 

Fork Farms maintains a digital portal providing resources, tools and an online community that helps customers learn how to use its Flex Farm system and deal with problems like insects. There are also K-12 teaching materials for classroom programming connected to agriculture, history, climate change, STEM-focused technology, health and economics. 

Indoor hydroponic farms also answer a seasonal problem with outdoor gardens. “What we find with soil gardens is a timing challenge,” Beré says. “With the calendar alignment of the school year, kids miss the peak time when they get to harvest and enjoy the bounty from their work.”

Flex Farms were initially adopted mainly by elementary and middle schools, but there is now a lot of interest from high schools and colleges that have a new focus on technical education and preparation for industries of the future. Supermarkets and corporate offices across the country are installing on-premise hydropic vertical farms to produce greens. 

“We also do work with a number of hunger relief nonprofits, homeless shelters and food banks to create a consistent source of greens, which is sometimes a big hurdle,” Beré says.

Very few Flex Farms have gone into private homes, but Beré is testing one out at her house. 

“You absolutely can install a Flex Farm in your home, but you have to remember that it does grow upwards of 25 to 30 pounds of food per month. That’s a lot of lettuce,” she says. 

Because the greens are organic and picked as needed, they tend to stay fresher longer. “When you buy kale at the supermarket it may have been picked a week earlier and shipped by truck from California,” Beré says. “The greens I grow at my house stay fresh. Even weeks later, the romaine has that crunch we love.” 

This story contains additional reporting by Caitlin Rockett.


Local Food News: No More Uhl’s

MeCo Coffee Collective — the cool ultra-local coffee shop and community bakery — is open at 1280 Centaur Village Drive in Lafayette.

Colorado’s first location of the Hummus Republic chain has opened at 321 McCaslin Blvd., Louisville.  

Founded in 2020 by Aaron Uhl, Boulder’s Uhl’s Brewing Company (5460 Conestoga Court) will close on Aug. 6.

Avery Brewing Co. in Gunbarrel is celebrating its 30th anniversary. (Story on pg. 45.)

Coming soon: Maine Shack, 2010 16th St., Boulder, serving lobster rolls, fried clams and blueberry pie; Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, a national chain employing people with disabilities, at 1468 Pearl St., Boulder.

Dine Out for Ukraine,taking place July 27 at 50 local restaurants, raises funds to support the Eastern European country as it continues to fight Russian invasion. Participating eateries include Blackbelly Market, The Post, Chautauqua Dining Hall, River and Woods, Mateo, Pica’s Taqueria and Ghost Box Pizza. Complete list: sunflowerseedsukraine.org 

Ash’kara, chef Dan Asher’s wonderful Mediterranean eatery featuring freshly baked pita loaves, has closed at 1043 Pearl St., Boulder.  


Nibbles Index: Meatless Mondays?

According to a recent Technomic survey, 41% of Americans say they eat a plant-based meal at least once a week. What the respondents meant precisely by “plant-based” was not part of the survey. 


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Words to Chew On: Melon Heart 

“I know the cracking sound it makes when a knife enters the end (of a watermelon). I can see the halves fall apart and display the rich red meat and the black seeds, and the heart standing up, a luxury fit for the elect.” — Mark Twain

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Comments: [email protected] 

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