MANATEE -- A truck rolled up to Braden River High School on Friday and picked up 80 heads of lettuce grown by students for the Salvation Army's high volume free kitchen at 1204 14th Street W.
Earlier this fall, the truck picked up the first ever load of lettuce from the school, 150 heads, and a few dozen cucumbers, all grown the same way -- hydroponically, using a large plastic table or plastic vine crop system holding soil-less plants fed only on nutrient-rich water.
Between the two loads, the Salvation Army estimates 400 people will eat student-grown fresh lettuce this fall, all produced in one of the county's most unique projects and partnerships.
The program, which took two years to bear a harvest, is called "Feed the Need," and the partnership is between students from Braden River High and Manatee Technical Institute, said Mary Cantrell director of MTI.
About 40 MTI students in
plumbing, electricity, carpentry and drafting designed and built the hydroponics lab on the Braden River High campus, with the blessing and physical assistance of Todd Hanson, the former director of the School District of Manatee County's maintenance and operations department.
The money for the lab came from a $90,000 grant from State Farm Insurance's Youth Advisory Council, said Maura Howl, MTI's grant writer.
In the years to come, when several plastic lettuce beds are in play as well as plastic vine systems for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, Braden River High could mass produce vegetables, including 100 to 200 heads of lettuce every two months, to either donate to an area food program or sell reasonably to pay for more seeds, tools and other needed items, said Deb Barry, Braden River High's agri-science teacher and FFA advisor.
The idea of growing hydroponic crops for the needy began when two MTI students in the electricity program came up with the idea that MTI students could build the system and Braden River High students could run it, Howl said.
At a special breakfast ceremony on Wednesday at the greenhouse and horticulture lab that State Farm funded at Braden River High, the insurance company's Kim Vole praised the students.
"You learned what it means to be a community partner," Vole told the students, many of whom wore "Feed the Need" T-shirts.
The moment was extra special for Vole because her own son, Peter Vole, 17, is a Braden River junior and member of the school's elite Horticulture III class, comprised of all juniors and seniors, who handle much of the day to day feeding and caring of the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, Barry said.
The Pirates' Horticulture III class also includes Peyton Murphy, called by his classmates, "The King of Hydroponics."
"The kids call Peyton The King because he has self-taught himself a lot about hydroponics and he's so into that he comes to check on the plants even on the weekends," Barry said.
Emily Courson, Caitlyn Townsend, Jimmy Gillette, Ariel Boozer, Derek Cuthbert, Sabrina Ivings, Stephanie Rinehart, Brittany Shaw, Kylie Martiniewz, RJ Philbrick and Vole round out the Horticulture III class roster.
Javonte Ware, of MTI's plumbing school, was an MTI student leader in the program.
"We hooked up the sinks and PVC pipes," Javonte said of the MTI classes. "Between us and Braden River, it was teamwork."
David Marshall, Braden River High's assistant principal, was in attendance Wednesday, along with Kim Vole, Barry, Cantrell, Howl, MTI plumbing instructor John Kenney and about 20 students from both schools, including the Horticulture III members.
"We are so proud of what you have done," said a beaming Melissa Fernandez, volunteer and special events coordinator for the Manatee County Salvation Army.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.