More than 300 miles up the Glenn Highway from Anchorage,
a school district greenhouse promises a bounty of healthy produce for hundreds
of Alaska school children.
The Alaska Gateway
School District built the 33- by 96-foot greenhouse in Tok to grow and
supply produce to all seven schools in the district. The district serves 370
students in Tok, Dot Lake, Eagle, Tetlin, Tanacross, Mentasta
Lake and Northway.
The greenhouse project – funded through several
sources, including district funds, a legislative appropriation and a federal
U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm-to-School grant – reduces the amount of
food the schools need to import and transport.
“Having it locally has made a big difference in how
fresh the food is,” said Bonnie Emery, Alaska Gateway’s horticulturist.
Emery said the first planting went in the greenhouse in
the spring of 2014, the year after its construction. The interior space allows her to
grow fruits and vegetables in Interior Alaska almost all year. This year, she
grew strawberries, melons, spinach, kale, different types of lettuce, tomatoes,
cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, beans, snap peas and more.
“I still have things growing in the greenhouse,” said
Emery in December when she was still growing spinach, tomatoes, turnip greens
The Biomass Heating Plant in Tok uses trees removed to
prevent wildfires to heat and power Tok School, including the greenhouse, which
also runs additional heaters and grow lights to continue gardening through the
winter. “At this point, it’s sort of an
experiment to see how far we can go,” said Emery.
In January, greenhouse staff reported that temperatures
in Tok dipped to minus 40 degrees, and yet the greens, spinach and celery
inside the greenhouse stayed alive.
Needless to say, the Alaska Gateway greenhouse also
provides an ongoing learning opportunity. Students at Tok School start seeds in
the classroom and transplant them to the greenhouse, and all district students can
tour the greenhouse to learn how fruits and vegetables are planted, harvested
and then served at schools, said Scott MacManus, assistant superintendent for
the district. “All the kids from the whole district will do field trips to the
school and go to the greenhouse and see how it works,” he noted.
MacManus said the district would like to work with the
state’s university system to start an arctic agriculture program that focuses
on what grows best in northern communities like Tok. Alaska Gateway is one
of eight school districts across Alaska that received a grant from the
Prevention and Control Program to improve nutrition and physical activity options
For more information about Alaska Gateway’s greenhouse,
Photos courtesy of Alaska Gateway School