The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma wants the people it serves to eat more produce.
The organization also understands that for many of them, access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables is an issue.
A new initiative by the food bank is hitting both of those fronts by allowing it to grow and distribute lettuce and tomatoes year-round.
The food bank recently purchased two used shipping containers outfitted as hydroponic farms called “growtainers.”
“For us, what’s really exciting about this is that Oklahoma weather can be so harsh,” said Eileen Bradshaw, executive director of the food bank. “These gardens are hail proof, heat proof.”
Inside the shipping containers the plants are grown in rockwool flats that are lined on shelving that is flooded with about a half inch of nutrient-enriched water six times a day. LED lights provide 18 hours of light a day.
“It’s not rocket science, but it’s not traditional gardening either,” said John McCarthy, director of community initiatives with the food bank.
The food bank is growing three types of lettuce and tomatoes in the 40-by- 8-foot containers. There are about 1,800 lettuce plants and 360 tomato plants.
“We did a lot of research, but until you see the results it can be a little nerve racking,” Bradshaw said, adding that she’s amazed with the results. “The rate of growth is incredible.”
The lettuce is grown in about a 30-day growing cycle 12 months a year. The planting is staggered so there can be multiple harvests each month.
Each harvest yields enough lettuce to provide some produce to about 150 people.
The lettuce is on its second harvest, while the tomatoes are just starting to flower.
“It’s really cool to know that we can cut it in the morning and it will be on someone’s kitchen table for dinner that night helping feed a family,” Bradshaw said. “The lettuce is beautiful. I’d be thrilled if I found this at the grocery store.”