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Vinton-Shellsburg FFA gains momentum with $2K grant

Students to begin growing vegetables for Produce for School Nutrition Program this spring

Vinton-Shellsburg students with FFA work in their greenhouse. Isabell Mullinex (left), a sophomore at Vinton-Shellsburg,
Vinton-Shellsburg students with FFA work in their greenhouse. Isabell Mullinex (left), a sophomore at Vinton-Shellsburg, Ashlee Thomas, sophomore, and Carly Williams, junior, plant vegetables from seeds, which will be incorporated into their school’s lunch menu when ready to harvest. (Photo submitted by Melissa Heeren)
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VINTON — Vinton-Shellsburg’s FFA is expanding its Produce for School Nutrition Program thanks to a $2,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

The chapter grows its own produce to provide fresh produce options for school meals.

Vinton-Shellsburg FFA for years has tended to a greenhouse where students grow lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. With the grant, the chapter plans to build raised-bed gardens and plant fruit trees and berries.

“I have freshmen and sophomores coming into FFA who are big into gardening,” said Melissa Heeren, agriculture education instructor and FFA adviser at Vinton-Shellsburg. “I think it’s going to give them a lot more responsibility and a chance to be involved and active in helping others.”

The grant also will help the FFA chapter update the aquaponics system, where plants are grown in water. Fish living in the water provide nutrients to the plants with their waste. The 320-gallon aquaponics system at Vinton-Shellsburg doesn’t have any plants in it right now, but Heeren plans to get students involved in making improvements.

“It takes up some room, but once we get it up and fully running, we can use it year around,” Heeren said.

Iowa FFA Executive Director Scott Johnson said the Farm to School grant program gives National FFA Organization chapters a chance to expand career development experiences for students. Students improve their agricultural literacy, which “will become increasingly important as they prepare for a lifetime of informed choices in a global agriculture industry,” Johnson said in a news release.

Schools get to choose what crops they want to grow, and students collaborate with the school’s food service staff to plan how the produce will be integrated into school lunches.

“This program is a great way to get kids excited about and involved in agriculture,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said in a news release. “The FFA members are responsible for planting, growing and harvesting the produce. then they get to see their hard work pay off when the school serves their food.

“It’s also a win for the school’s food service program,” Naig continued, “which gains access to a larger variety of fresh, locally-grown produce at an affordable price.”

As spring approaches, the Vinton-Shellsburg FFA has started growing plants from seed.

It’s been six years since the chapter was able to provide produce for the school lunch program, but Heeren hopes to turn that around this year.

“We ran into snags with a heater going out in the greenhouse and other programs getting in the way,” Heeren explained. “After we get into spring and into summer, we’re going to grow more produce to keep it going year-round.”

Students will help Heeren tend to the garden during the summer months, stopping by once or twice a day to water and tend plants, she said.

Making improvements to the greenhouse with the grant will help students who want to achieve their Iowa degree — the highest degree an FFA student can earn while in high school.

“I love this program because there’s a lot of different opportunities for students. They have options to try something new they may end up loving,” Heeren said.

National FFA Organization chapters in English Valleys, Waukee and Wayne also received $2,000 each.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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