- Associated Press - Saturday, April 12, 2014

FAIRFIELD, Iowa (AP) - Minutes after train cars loaded with coal roll by, Jan Swinton admits this rough industrial park on Fairfield’s north side is hardly where you’d expect to find the beginnings of a lush vegetable garden that will help feed the area’s 1,700 schoolchildren.

But there, tucked behind a nondescript factory, is a new greenhouse, sprouting spinach, radishes, pea shoots, greens and lettuce on a cold April day, thanks to its industrial partner next door.

In a unique experiment, Swinton is growing veggies by tapping unused heat from her neighbor, Schaus-Vorhies Kleaning, a company that uses heat up to 1,600 degrees to clean and sometimes strengthen metals.

Swinton told The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1lzfBRh) the greenhouse is the first of its kind in Iowa, possibly the nation, and could become a demonstration project for others wanting to bring more locally grown fruits and vegetables to U.S. schoolchildren, especially in cold-weather locations like Iowa.

“It’s pioneering. The concept of taking unused industrial heat for greenhouse production has been talked about, but few have developed it,” said Matt Russell, a state food policy project coordinator at Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center.

Mark Burnham, president and an owner of Schaus-Vorhies Kleaning, likes the idea of adding value to something that literally disappears into air. His business uses superheated sand to vaporize paint off metal hooks and equipment used in paint lines, manufacturing parts, even old cars. “It was a natural fit,” Burnham said.

Swinton uses water - piped underground - to capture the heat at Burham’s company and carry it back into a 17,000-gallon tank, where it heats the greenhouse soil to 60-70 degrees.

“It’s a reverse geothermal system. We’re not picking up heat from underground. We’re dropping off heat,” said Swinton, a food systems coordinator for Pathways Resource Conservation and Development, a nonprofit based in Fairfield.

Getting the greenhouse operational has taken a lot of work - and tweaking, said Swinton, who leads the Jefferson County Farm-to-School Greenhouse project.

Swinton has amassed volunteers that include engineers, builders, farmers and manufacturers to help with the project.

Among the challenges was transforming the massive underground tank that had been donated - and at one time held tar.

Volunteers from Schaus-Vorhies Kleaning and its sister companies helped Swinton clean the tank, paint and insulate it. “What’s unique about this project is that conservation and manufacturers aren’t normally partners,” Swinton said. “And then, we added the schools.”

Teachers plan to use the greenhouse to teach students about nutrition, plants and genetics, among other issues. Students also will have a chance to plant vegetables, care for them and harvest them, Swinton said.

The project’s nearly $70,000 cost has been financed with grants from groups ranging from the state and U.S. departments of agriculture to Alliant Energy.

Swinton expects the greenhouse will provide students from kindergarten through high school with fresh vegetables each week.

The group is adding other produce to the lineup. It has inoculated logs that will shoot up Shiitake mushrooms, and Swinton plans to grow strawberries from the greenhouse’s rafters. The ultimate goal - and challenge - is to grow cherry tomatoes over the winter, she said.

Bringing more fresh food into America’s schools is a growing federal initiative to improve nutrition and help fight childhood obesity. The new farm bill calls for spending $4 billion over 10 years to encourage fresh fruits and veggies, among other programs, in local schools.

Russell, the Drake food policy leader, loves the Fairfield project but worries that other schools will see its complexity and use it as an excuse to avoid using local foods. Traditionally, schools, driven by limited budgets, have looked to lower food costs. It’s led to many pre-cooked foods that require less time and staff to prepare.

Fresh, local foods can cost more and require more staff time to prepare, he said. That can make it a tough sell sometimes to budget- and staff-strapped school leaders.

“There are less intensive ways to get fresh produce into the schools,” Russell said. “We have some of the best soils in the country for producing vegetables.”

Swinton agreed that getting local produce into schools can be challenging. Local districts like the convenience of working with one large vendor, instead of two or three local vendors.

And one universal challenge, said Russell and Swinton, is that locally grown food is mostly produced when students aren’t in school.

Many schools are experimenting with freezing vegetables like green beans and corn for use later in the year, said Swinton, who plans to plant vegetables in the fall for use during the winter.

She said districts that have flash-frozen green beans say students are crazy for the fresh taste. Swinton also plans to work with volunteers to make salsa this summer using tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables from the greenhouse for use over the winter.

Swinton believes her team also will be able to flash-freeze fruits like melons from Muscatine and the strawberries they plan to grow.

Swinton also is hatching a plan to help introduce students to the delight of vegetables. Her team hopes to enlist some of the school’s stars - its athletes, actors and singers, among others - to occasionally serve lunches.

“We want to make eating in the cafeteria, eating vegetables cool,” she said, especially in an era when high school students dash to fast-food restaurants instead of eating school lunch.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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