Nfld. & Labrador

Hydroponic growing program bears fruit — or, rather, vegetables

In the fall, Western Health handed out free hydroponic growing kits to community groups, who are now eating fresh vegetables in the dead of winter.

21 community groups received free growing kits in the fall

Stepping Stones Daycare's second round of lettuce and kale growing is already sprouting. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Some people in western Newfoundland are enjoying fresh, local vegetables in the dead of winter, thanks to a Western Health initiative to introduce hydroponics kits to community groups.

"We grew lettuce," Sophie Hicks, 6, stated proudly of the work she and her fellow novice gardeners at Stepping Stones Daycare accomplished over the past few months.

"Every day, they kept on growing and growing and growing, and it was so cool."

The Corner Brook daycare was one of 21 groups that made the cut for a Western Health initiative that launched in the fall of 2018, which saw the health authority foot the $500 bill for each hydroponics kit. 

"We know that vegetable and fruit consumption is really low in Newfoundland in general, and western Newfoundland particularly, so we're looking at ways to increase vegetable and fruit consumption," said Lesley French, a nutritionist at Western Health.

"We thought this would be an awesome way to encourage growing of vegetables and fruit."

Leah Hann, left, and Sophie Hicks both enjoyed watching their lettuce plants grow at Stepping Stones Daycare. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Island-made technology

The program avails of local technology: the kits come from the St. John's-based company SucSeed, which itself sprang from an innovative team of Memorial University students. Their kits resemble large black Tupperware bins, with the lids peppered with small pots and a simple watering system, plus a grow light.

French said when she found out about the kits, the idea of connecting them to community groups on Newfoundland's west coast was a no-brainer, and she applied for funding to carry out the Western Health initiative. 

The only snag? Demand outstripped supply, with personal-care homes, town councils, and even the West Coast Correctional Centre asking for one.

"There were quite a few groups that got left out of the first call, so we're hoping that we'll be able to obtain more and maybe do another call," French said, adding the current crop of kits will stay with their respective groups.

Nutritionist Lesley French, left, and daycare administrator Kelly Piercey are both happy with how the hydroponics kit experiment went. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

'It was absolutely fantastic'

Of those who did receive kits, French said, "it's been really, really positive," with groups growing lettuce, tomatoes and kale initially.

At Stepping Stones, lettuce was the clear winner in terms of ease of growth, although the daycare's administrator admitted getting the kids to actually eat their vegetables was another matter.

"Some of them were brave enough to have a nibble, but that was pretty much it," said Kelly Piercey.

Well-versed in the world of picky eaters, Piercey maintained that, overall, the children were deeply engaged every other step of the way.

"The kids were involved in every process, in regards to setting up the frames, pouring 32 litres of water — each of them had their own jug of water — it was absolutely fantastic, what an experience for them," she said.

"As with everything, you start a child young, and it's the best time to get them involved."

In an informal CBC poll of the main playroom, all the children surveyed agreed vegetables were essential for healthy eating.

"They give you vitamins, and they let you grow up," said Samuel Vardy, 6, who prefers cucumbers.

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