FAIRBANKS — Culture is not just the shared ideas, values and customs of a group of people. Culture is cultivation, growth and improvement, and cultures are often built around food. A new greenhouse in Tok represents every meaning of culture. 

Gateway Greenhouse, built in 2013, is entering its first full year of growing. The goal: provide fresh vegetables to the Alaska Gateway School District, which serves about 375 students in the communities of Tok, Dot Lake, Eagle, Tetlin, Tanacross, Mentasta Lake and Northway. 

Students get to take part, learn about cultivation and experience the joy of eating fruit and vegetables picked on the spot. 

Six 25,000-Btu heating units and heat loops through soil keep the 30-by-96 foot greenhouse warm using excess heat from Tok School’s wood-fired boiler. 

Jason Fastenau, technology and farm school director for Tok School, said even at minus 50 degrees the greenhouse is kept above freezing. 

In January, scarce lettuce, celery and spinach can be found in the greenhouse, but things are ramping up for the growing seasons. Tomatoes, cucumbers and more celery have been started. Barley is being sprouted, eventually destined for the compost pile. “We’re trying to improve soil and improve it organically,” Fastenau said. Last season, strawberries, corn, melons, broccoli, peas, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots and “a lot of tomatoes” were grown, according to Fastenau. 

Fastenau said current operations involve lots of experimentation. He is trying to determine what students like best and wise uses of soil. The broccoli was delicious, but slow growing and space intensive, he said.

District funds, a legislative appropriation and an Alaska Department of Natural Resources Farm-to-School grant all helped pay for the roughly $35,000 greenhouse, which is run in conjunction with University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. 

Rita Abel is a nutrition education instructor from Tok’s Cooperative Extension office. When classes from village schools visit, Abel runs greenhouse classes for preschool to high school students. 

Abel’s ambition — aside from increasing fruits and vegetables in students’ diets — is for students and adults to “experience pulling the fruit or vegetable right off the vine.”

Abel said it’s working. Students were thrilled to pick peas and rainbow carrots last year, and teachers and principals were astounded with the produce returned to village schools. 

Class curricula vary. Preschoolers might learn about beneficial bugs, while high school classes might explore science and biology topics. One teacher simply wanted her students to understand the word produce and the act of harvesting.

Hard numbers on the amount of produce generated aren’t available from 2013, partly because the full growing season wasn’t utilized. Fastenau said more extensive tracking will begin this year. The ultimate goal, according to Fastenau, is to locally provide 20 percent of Gateway School District’s food. 

“We have enough extra heat to do a number of additional greenhouses, should we chose,” Fastenau said. 

Equally important, the greenhouse offers an increasingly popular and long-absent learning environment in school systems: introducing kids to the value of fresh fruits and vegetables and how to procure them. 

And, as Abel puts it, “dirt is fun.” 

Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510.