On an inconspicuous side of Park High School in Livingston, Montana I walk through the door of the school’s Plant Growth Center to find a lush scene of gorgeous greens, herbs, plant starts, a fruiting fig tree... and a tank full of fish.
Soon students file into the school’s Plant Growth Center to harvest their first fish from their Trout to Tray project. Most of the fish in this aquaponics system serve a dual purpose — to provide nutrients to the plants in the greenhouse and to become a source of food themselves.
Trout to Tray is part of the growing Livingston Farm to School program that aims to bring together delicious, healthy, sustainable school meals with hands-on learning opportunities in school gardens and classrooms.
Rachael Jones, who leads the Livingston Farm to School program, described the process and congratulates the students on their effort. It has taken significant teamwork with community partners including the Livingston School District, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Montana Roots, Trout Culture, Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, and many others.
Students interact with this innovative space in many ways — from daily independent study projects to one-time visits. Righly Madden, unofficial student spokesperson for the project, explained that the Life Science class submitted a proposal and received the governor’s SMART Schools Challenge award for their What the Kale? initiative.
They worked on the project throughout the year, which includes the aquaponics project, production and marketing, and school food and nutrition. This space was a paradise for Righly and, like me, the vivid rainbow chard is her favorite in here.
With nets in hand and helpers ready, students carefully caught the rainbow and cutthroat trout and placed them into coolers full of ice water. The rainbow trout grew impressively and all ten were harvested. The cutthroat trout were not as successful, but provided many teachable moments and projects for the team to address.
Building on the success of the Sleeping Giant School’s Aquaponics Learning Lab, the Livingston Farm to School program renovated the Plant Growth Center in 2016 to increase educationally rich experiential learning opportunities while providing the school food service fresh vegetables.
One Life Science student who was introduced to aquaponics in middle school said, "I liked science, but this class has made it so I love science."
The students presented their project at the State Capitol and gave a tour to Lieutenant Governor Cooney. Students like Mitchel Kinnick were clearly engaged in the morning’s activities, wishing he could partake in enjoying the fish in a tasty meal. The ultimate goal is to feature the fish in school meals, but while the regulatory kinks are worked out, Mountain Sky Guest Ranch has purchased the fish and guests will be enjoying chef Jonathan Romans’ House-Smoked Trout Crostini with Saffron Rouille.
In the meantime, students have enjoyed eating a bounty of veggies from the greenhouse in school meals and through the Montana Harvest of the Month program. With careful management from Ms. Jones and independent study students like Emily Romans, August Schuerr, and Hagen Weinrich, the greenhouse and school gardens produced over 700 pounds of delicious food in 2016.
The school district is already known for serving its fresh daily salad bar, homemade soups, and local burgers. So, it is not a big stretch that students at Park High School will be enjoying trout they helped raise on their lunch trays next to a hearty helping of greens from the greenhouse.
Jones has big plans to expand the program to build a larger system that can produce more fish, fruits, and vegetables for both the school district and the community while providing engaging educational and life skills experiences.
While farm to school programs are taking root throughout Montana and exist in all 50 states, the program at Park High School remains an innovator and one of very few nationally that raises edible fish in an aquaponics system to be featured in school meals. You can be sure that next spring I will be lining up with Park High students, lunch tray in hand, ready to enjoy student-raised trout!