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Column Greens brings hydroponic farming to area students’ lunch trays

May 5, 2019

SPEARFISH — A creative partnership between local hydroponic growers Column Greens and area school districts is bringing freshly harvested vegetables from farm to tray in a day.

“What they do is really amazing, being able to cut lettuce and herbs right off the stalk any time of year, and deliver it for us to serve our students and staff,” said Justin Olson, food service director for Belle Fourche School District. “It opens up even more opportunities for us to provide delicious, nutritious vegetables in our daily program.”

Basil and butterhead lettuce are just a few of the items that Column Greens has provided to Belle Fourche and Spearfish school districts in the past few months. Both districts’ lunch programs, operated by Dakota Dunes- based food service management company Lunchtime Solutions, have served them on their schools’ unlimited fruit and veggie bars as part of their monthly Farmer’s Market Selections program meant to highlight fresh, local produce.

“We’re excited to help students see that there’s more behind the food they eat; that delicious, locally grown food is possible here,” said Erica Proefrock, co-owner of Column Greens, along with Alex Hamaker.

The partnership started last year when Olson arranged for Proefrock and Hamaker to visit the classroom of Belle Fourche seventh-grade science teacher Darin Newton. The pair explained the technology behind their hydroponic farm and brought along a few portable towers to show students how it works.

“It was awesome just to be there, but we could tell it really hyped the kids up on eating the lettuce from the salad bar,” Proefrock said. “It gave them the knowledge, then they just ate it up.”

Column Greens is currently based at Proefrock and Hamaker’s home. The pair employ ZipGrow technology that allows them to grow greens indoors on vertical towers that circulate water. They also use a series of different colored LED lights, covering all the different spectrums of natural sunlight to help their greens grow. The crops require only 300 gallons of water a month and are herbicide- and pesticide-free.

Regional partnerships like this one have been the key to Column Greens’ growth — they now deliver their greens to businesses like Regional Health hospitals in Rapid City; REDwater Kitchen, Dakota Seafood, and Bee’s Knees Natural Foods in Spearfish; and The Lodge at Deadwood. Proefrock said they are looking to expand to a larger facility in order to increase production.

Olson has bought several different types of lettuce from Column Greens to serve at school. The latest item involving Column Greens produce to be served on the schools’ fruit and veggie bars was a fresh tomato and basil salad, marinated in balsamic vinaigrette dressing with onions. The recipe, using Column Greens’ basil and basil microgreens, was written by the Lunchtime Solutions culinary team.

“I had nothing but great comments about how good the salad was. I wouldn’t say it was super popular with the younger kids, mostly because they aren’t too adventurous, and it had onions and green stuff in it,” Olson joked. “But the older kids and adults raved about it. We even had one teacher ask for the recipe.”

Coree Walker, food service director for Spearfish School District, said she experienced a similar reaction from her students.

“The more fresh produce you get in front of them, the more they will eat,” Walker said.

Lunchtime Solutions has served meals to Belle Fourche students for the past seven years, and to Spearfish students for eight years.

“Our program centers on getting kids excited about eating lunch at school,” said Brandy Popken, area director for Lunchtime Solutions. “We think it’s important to provide a wide variety of menu options and make sure students have unlimited access to fresh fruits and vegetables every day.”

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