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Veggie Van, tower gardens bring fresh produce to Lackawanna, Niagara Falls

Parts of Lackawanna and Niagara Falls are considered food deserts, a designation the federal government defines as an urban census tract where at least a third of residents struggle to find the means to reach a supermarket with healthy, affordable food within a mile of home.

Jennifer Tynan is among those working to bring better wellness to such places. Two of her weapons: a Veggie Van and tower gardens provided by a state health department grant.

Starting next week, the van will roll into Lackawanna every Wednesday (except Aug. 1) through September from 10 to noon at the Lackawanna Senior Center, 230 Martin Road, and 1 to 3 p.m. at the Taggart Playground on Odell Street. It will head into Niagara Falls every Thursday (except Aug. 2) from 10 to noon at the John Duke Senior Center, 1201 Hyde Park Blvd., and 1 to 3 p.m. at the Community Health Center of Niagara, 2715 Highland Ave.

“Anyone who stops can shop,” said Tynan, school grant coordinator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County Creating Healthy Schools and Communities program.

Tynan also worked during the spring to bring vertical aeroponic growing systems into the cafeteria at Martin Road Elementary School in Lackawanna, the office corridor at Niagara Street Elementary in Niagara Falls, and Richard Clarke’s science and technology class at Gaskill Prep, also in the Falls.

Q: What is the veggie van like? Are the prices typical of what you might find in a farmers’ market?

The Niagara County Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara Veggie Van next week will roll into Lackawanna and Niagara Falls for its second season.

A: We’re procuring most of the produce from Hiller’s Farm Market, which is accessible to our main base in Lockport. Jeff Hiller provides a big diversity of produce. We try to keep the prices as low as possible. We provide a little bit for overhead to make the project sustainable but our mission is to provide access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables to people that are in food deserts and can’t get those type of things. We’re excited this year because we’re accepting farmers’ market coupons as well as SNAP benefits.

Q: How do the tower gardens work?

A: Everything is set up on a timer, so it’s much easier than a grow lab. Plants grow vertically. It gets the students excited because they look so futuristic. The plants grow in rockwool, which is made from spun basalt, a type of rock. You can plant seeds in it. Water is continuously cycled up through the system by a pump and showers the roots every 15 minutes. The lights are also are on a timer. The whole unit comes on wheels. One of the benefits to having them is that they can jibe with the school calendar. It extends the growing season and you can teach about nutrition, science and health.

Q: Are they available for residential homes or cost-prohibitive?

When parents and other people see them at different events, they sometimes say, "These things are so neat, I'd love to have one on my patio or in my house." I would love one on my patio.

Q: How much do they cost?

A bundle of three is more economical. It was about $3,000 with shipping but that includes the lights, the pumps, the whole system, and an extension to hold up to 28 plants. (Smaller, less sophisticated systems can be found on eBay for $35 to $400.)

Q: What kind of veggies were grown?

Bibb lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, spinach and some herbs: basil, cilantro, parsley, thyme. We've found that greens tend to do the best. We're also working with Eat Smart New York to plan a series of cooking lessons for parents and students within the schools and we plan to use the tower garden produce for those lessons.

Q: Any plans for the summer?

Marla Guarino is the community coordinator in our office. She's been implementing two garden towers in the community, one in the Lackawanna Senior Center and another in the Lackawana library on Ridge Road. Her third system will be going into the John Duke Senior Center in Niagara Falls. Two of those sites also are Veggie Van sites. The projects complement one another.

We're also doing a partnership with the YWCA and Eat Smart New York at Martin Road Elementary School. They're going to be shopping at the Veggie Van during their summer program.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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