With purple LED lights, a sound system that blasts music, and vertical crop columns, the hydroponic shipping container that arrived at IDEA Public Schools' Eastside campus about three months ago isn't what most people picture when they think of a farm.
The 40-foot shipping container – what IDEA Farm Coordinator Cecile Parrish calls "an acre in a box" – will grow 500 heads of lettuce, about 50 pounds of greens, and just under 45 pounds of herbs a week at full capacity. The produce will go directly into the kitchens of the charter-school operator's 11 San Antonio campuses and onto students' lunch plates.
Hydroponic farming is a cultivation method by which plants grow without any soil, instead obtaining needed nutrients from water. At IDEA Eastside, plants grow inside an industrial shipping container that mainly uses water to grow produce such as kale, lettuce, spinach, basil, cilantro, thyme, and mint.
The container is water-efficient, using 10 gallons of water a day, or about as much as is used during a five- to 10-minute shower, Parrish said. Caring for the container's crops is less labor-intensive than an open acre of land, she said, requiring just 20 hours a week.
While many schools use gardens both for producing food for their lunchrooms and as an educational tool, IDEA Eastside is one of fewer than 10 K-12 schools nationwide to use a freight farming system. Parrish pitched the idea to students as a "high-tech computer that grows salad."
It took three months to get what the school calls the Leafy Green Machine up and running and get water and power to the container, which is air-conditioned. Four students, who last year were certified as Junior Master Gardeners through an educational program on best practices of gardening, started cultivating the container crops, and Parrish said that she plans on teaching others about sustainable food growth in the next school year.
Students can change the internal temperature of the container, adjust carbon dioxide levels to optimize growth, and select a music playlist through an application on their phones. The music, however, is more for the students than for the plants.
Eighth-grader Laila Rodriguez said she works in the container on free periods and after school, and she loves it because it reminds her of her grandfather's garden.
"Ever since I was little, I would like helping my grandpa in his garden because he has one, so that's kind of what got me into it," she said. "I had never seen anything like this. ... [my grandpa] is happy and he thinks it's cool."
Eighth-grade student David Jones didn't have much experience gardening before attending IDEA Eastside, but he said he was excited to get involved with an after-school activity.
Parrish said her goal is for students to learn the entire process of growing food: planting the seeds in coconut coir, which is used in hydroponic gardening as an alternative to soil; taking care of the seedlings; and transferring them into vertical columns to grow until harvest.
"Schools go through tons of lettuce, [and] in South Texas we are really limited seasonally for when we can grow [it]," Parrish said. "So this is kind of our answer for how we can sustainably provide a large, significant amount of the lettuce that IDEA uses."
The herbs also will be used to support IDEA's efforts to serve healthier lunches to its students. In IDEA cafeterias, Parrish said, students don't have access to salt or pepper. The school plans to use the container-grown herbs to make a seasoning mix that provides a healthier alternative to salt.
Jones, whom Parrish calls the official taste tester for the freight farm's products, said so far, the produce has been "pretty good."
The first crop from the container will be delivered to IDEA kitchens in about two weeks, just in time for the end of the school year. Over the summer, Parrish plans to streamline the growing process so students can eat the Leafy Green Machine's produce on the first day of school.
The container will be able to produce crops year-round, regardless of outdoor weather conditions.
Parrish said IDEA plans to add a second freight farm unit to another campus, although timing and location haven't yet been determined.