‘We found a great recipe’: Bethel Park students serve hydroponically grown vegetables

A cursory glance at the succulent leafy greens sprouting from a series of pipes doesn’t quite tell the story.

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” said Bethel Park sixth-grade student Sydney Kellander. “It took us many trials before we got a batch of seedlings ready to grow in the lab. Lots of batches didn’t do so well and didn’t grow.

The lab in this case is a locker outfitted like a hydroponic garden, maintained by Sydney and several of her classmates from Neil Armstrong Middle School, as they learned how to grow plants in something other than soil.

“We found a great recipe, and now all our hard work has finally paid off,” she said.

Speaking of recipes, the students hosted a lunch in early May showcasing what they had grown, with salads topped with a healthy oil and vinegar dressing and roasted chickpeas by teacher Dave Espinar , whose room is where the hydroponic garden is located.

He explained one of the main purposes of its creation.

“In the research we’ve done, we’ve found that college students on average don’t eat vegetables or fruit a day, not even once during their day,” he said. “So it’s really to make vegetables more accessible and try new recipes.”

Magnolia Cavagnaro, Sydney Glover, Elliott Knibloe and Ellis Stearman join Sydney in tending the garden, including the crucial task of monitoring pH levels.

“Our goal was to learn a new skill for gardening. We also want to add it to school lunch, for some garden vegetables. It kind of morphed from that,” Magnolia said. “And we We could also sell them in the future at a farmers’ market.”

As for potential for school lunches, the garden received a $500 donation from Metz Culinary Management, which provides food and nutrition services to the Bethel Park School District. Joe Consolmagno, a Metz general manager who also represents Ward 1 on the Bethel Park council, attended the student luncheon as an advocate for the project.

Another council member, John Oakes of Ward 3, helped build the hydroponic system, and Espinar’s position as the 7th Ward’s representative further bolsters municipal support for the project.

Espinar has applied for $3,000 through the Whole Kids Foundation’s Garden Grant program, with recipients expected to be announced Aug. 1.

“If we are selected as grant recipients, we will use these funds to purchase tower gardens, which are vertical hydroponic systems that will allow tomatoes and cucumbers to grow,” he said.

The current horizontally oriented system, in which a pump circulates water through two levels of pipes, uses a wool insulation product instead of earth. The growing process begins with seeds planted in small containers, and when they germinate into appropriately sized seedlings, they are transferred.

In addition to horticulture, students learn other subjects, including the economics of suitable housing for a hydroponic garden.

“These lockers, we can pick them up for like $1,500,” Espinar said of the retail variety. “But if we do it ourselves, we’re down to about $400.”

Harry Funk is a news editor for Tribune-Review. You can contact Harry at [email protected]

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