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Dillingham City School District to buy hydroponic tank

Dillingham Middle/High School. August 22, 2023.
Christina McDermott
Dillingham Middle/High School. August 22, 2023.

The Dillingham City School District wants to start growing its own greens. The district recently received a $150,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture and plans to buy a hydroponic tank where students and staff can raise produce for school lunches. The money comes as part of the Department of Agriculture’s effort to fund nutritious meals in rural schools.

Phil Hulett is the school district’s business manager and food service director. He says the district plans to integrate the 40 foot tank into classes.

“It's going to incorporate into the elementary science curriculum, the middle/high school science curriculum, as well as an economics class,” he said. “They're going to do a price point study and a marketing scheme and sell some of the excess that we get from the farm.”

Produce is costly in Bristol Bay, even in the growing season. A head of iceberg lettuce, for example, currently costs about $7.00 at AC, one of two grocery stores in Dillingham. In California, where that lettuce is grown it would cost about $1.60.

And in winter, unless it’s frozen or grown in a private greenhouse, produce travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get here, which can result in wilting, bruised veggies.

“The problem - it always is transportation. You know, whenever it gets to the airport, then the cargo company, if the weather's bad out here, then it sits in the cargo. Sometimes it freezes. Sometimes it sits for a couple of days. So the product quality is usually a lot lower,” he said.

Hydroponic tanks can grow food year-round. In a tank, plants are placed above a tub of water with nutrients in it, either with the roots in the water, in air above the water, or in a layer of growing medium like perlite. The plant receives nutrients from the tub. Hydroponic tanks actually require less water and save space, compared to traditional gardens. Hulett says the district is planning to invest in a tank built for arctic winters –
one that is insulated, heated and completely self-contained.

According to Hulett, the tank will cost the district about $2000 in electricity each month. But he says that they’ve weighed this cost against the amount spent on produce, the health benefits to students and the teaching opportunities that the tank would offer.

“The component with the science curriculum and the teaching aspect, it's kind of how we've justified that electrical cost,” he said.

Hulett says the school is considering applying for grant funding to buy solar panels that would help power the tank and help reduce its electricity bill.

Dillingham won’t see school-grown produce right away. According to Hulet, the district anticipates receiving the funds in October. Staff plan to get the tank set up next summer.

Disclaimer: The Dillingham City School District owns KDLG's broadcasting license, but it does not influence or direct our coverage.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

Christina McDermott began reporting for KDLG, Dillingham’s NPR member station, in March 2023. Previously, she worked with KCBX News in San Luis Obispo, California, where she focused on local news and cultural stories. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich work that informs and connects the public.