Local lettuce helps community after national scare

The recent E. Coli outbreak with romaine lettuce scared the entire country; however, a local greenhouse provided relief to those in Philadelphia and New Jersey during the shortage

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning regarding an E. coli outbreak with romaine lettuce earlier this month, making it the second time federal officials have warned the public to dispose of that specific food this year.

The problem batches of romaine lettuce were later determined to be from northern and central California, according to the CDC website. Such outbreaks often cause shortages of readily available food for consumers, even after an outbreak warning is contained to a specific region where the food is grown or processed.

These are just some of the problems with mass food production and consumption on a countrywide scale, as the outbreak caused restaurants, fast food chains and other organizations to be without this type of lettuce.

For some, that’s simply not acceptable.

Camden County’s Office of Sustainability grows different types of lettuce, including romaine, as well as tomatoes and other plants in its hydroponic greenhouse, located in the Blackwood section of Gloucester Township.

The county partnered with the Philadelphia Zoo earlier this year to provide additional food for its animal nutrition program, helping feed many different types of animals under it’s care, something that came in handy this past month.

The hydroponic greenhouse practice is to grow plants without using soil, but instead by using a myriad of different growing practices with nutrients and a water reservoir mixed with nutrients.

These types of lettuce are growing without soil; instead, a water reservoir underneath with nutrients mixed in continues to cycle through the pipes and tubes. Gravity waters the plants as it brushes by the exposed roots on the inside for the plants to take in.

According to Valerie Brown, program coordinator of the office of sustainability, everything grown in the hydroponic greenhouse starts with placing the seeds in horticultural cubes, or “hort cubes” for short, in a tub long enough for them to sprout. The reservoir beneath the tub fills the tub with water three times day for half an hour, allowing the seeds to take in the nutrients they need.

Then, the seeds can be transferred to different types of growing practices within the greenhouse, all while saving water and electricity. There are tables where the water and nutrient mix flows through tubes where the plants with their exposed roots sit, a tower for growing plants using aeroponics where plants are misted with water and additional ways as well.

All the seeds start in these cubes before being transferred to other growing practices.

This is the first full year for the greenhouse, which utilizes a long growing season, helping maximize its produce output thanks to plants that can be harvested relatively quickly.

“We will continue to grow until next May or June,” said Brown. “Most of the lettuce can be in here about a month from seed to harvest … but the fastest has been 15 days.”

According to Rick Harris, a master gardener with the Gloucester Township greenhouse, they are able to grow about 540 plants per month. And while being able to provide locally grown food to the zoo, as well as to Cathedral Kitchen and the Neighborhood Center in Camden to families in need, there are additional benefits.

Growing inside the greenhouse allows the three staff and 20 to 25 regular volunteers to control multiple different parameters including water and pH levels, temperature, nutrient intake and more thanks to the hydroponic process.

But additionally, the process helps save on electricity costs by using LED lights at intermittent times throughout the day or night.

The program has already become a successful program in the short time since it was implemented, leading to the hopeful plans of increasing the production able to come from the greenhouse and its ability to educate others on its work.

“Our goal is to basically expand exponentially what we’re doing in all of our various greenhouses,” said Chris Waldron, director of sustainability for Camden County. “Our first step is to create a multipurpose building which will have a full kitchen in it to allow us to have a better place to process and handle everything that we’re doing hydroponically.”

Waldron says that, at the moment, everything that is harvested is sent out that same day to the Philadelphia Zoo, Camden organizations, or wherever else they might help provide food. He says the goal is to expand the building, thus expanding the production as well, which would require a place to store food onsite and handle better after harvested.

Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young, liason to Sustainable Camden County, examines one of the lettuce plants and its roots currently growing in the greenhouse.

A final aspect of the greenhouse initiative is education, teaching schools and anyone interested.

“We want to be a demonstration site for a variety of growing techniques and sustainable practices,” Waldron said.

Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young is the liaison to Sustainable Camden County and strongly believes in the program’s purpose.

“I truly believe in making sure that we have that ability to breathe right and eat healthy foods and to educate,” said Young. “I think our municipalities have bought into it; all 37 municipalities get certified every year through green initiatives and our school children get educated about it when they come down here.”