Mantua – Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re familiar with the phrase, “like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Recently, Garrettsville State Farm insurance representative Shannon Jursa took that phrase to heart when she when she presented the students of the Crestwood High School Academy / Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC) with a check for $99,976 on behalf of the insurance company. The grant, which was funded by the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, was awarded to the Academy / HPAC students to help establish a large-scale aquaponics greenhouse on CHS grounds. The greenhouse is slated to be operational during the 2016-2017 school year, and will provide fresh produce and fish for the CHS cafeteria and for community consumption.

Ms. Jursa, who was instrumental in bringing the grant opportunity to CHS, shared, “The ceremony was the culmination of two dedicated years of researching, planning, and fundraising for the greenhouse. The aquaponics greenhouse will benefit not only the students in the district, but the community at large by providing fresh produce and fish, as well as classroom learning space. We were thrilled to celebrate the students’ extraordinary achievement,” she added.

At  CHS as a part of program, students are encouraged to identify a community need or problem. As a part of their curriculum, they learn how to seek grant funding and are guided in developing community programs to address these needs. The class chose to address what is deemed the food desert in Mantua, where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options are restricted due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance.

The grant from the State Farm® will be used to construct a student-run, freestanding aquaponic greenhouse annex. An aquaponics greenhouse takes nutrient-rich water from fish waste, recycling it to help grow produce like leaf and vine-based crops in channels suspended above the fish tanks. Those plants, in turn, feed the fish. “The creation of the greenhouse will serve two purposes: to provide the community fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables and fish and provide a hands-on learning environment for the students while benefiting the community,” said Anita Iveljic, associate director of AmeriCorps, a program administered through the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED). “What is most unique about our project is that is entirely student-run,” said Iveljic. The grant will also fund renovations to a local nature trail called Red Devil’s Run.

The HPAC program is part of the Academy class offered at CHS that focuses on experiential and service learning. Through the class, students identified poverty and obesity as community concerns; in Portage County, the obesity rate is 24.5 percent, with an estimated 36 percent of the population found to be overweight. Students came to the realization that poverty and obesity work in tandem in a community like Mantua, where the food that’s readily available is unhealthy.

Throughout the greenhouse project, students created and hosted fundraising events, including a color run in Hiram, spaghetti dinners, and simply going door-to-door to ask for donations. They conducted background research for the grant, including identifying the equipment and building plans needed for the greenhouse annex and trail renovations.

Once the greenhouse is operational, students plan to make fresh produce available in the school cafeteria and in a food pantry where students can select food to take home. In addition, they plan to hold market days at the greenhouse to allow the community to buy healthy, locally grown food at a low cost. To help bring a sustainable market to life, students will look into forging partnerships with local institutions, such as Hiram College, to provide learn how to more effectively market and sell produce.

State Representative Sarah LaTourette, who was present at Friday’s event, shared, “This one of my favorite parts of my job, recognizing students for their outstanding work.” She congratulated students and staff for seeing the need and doing the work required to receive this major grant; the award of which highlights the local need for such a program. “This classroom and market space will make a real impact on food insecurity your community,” she acknowledged.

State Senator John Eklund added, “If one-tenth of the people in Ohio were focused on solving local issues in a way that includes learning through service, think of what an incredible community we could create…and what an incredible State and Nation.” He thanked the community, sharing, “It’s the local community that has raised and nurtured these young people to become fine, purposeful Ohioans and Americans.” He further encouraged students, urging them to, “take this experience forward as you leave Crestwood High School. People will look to you as leaders; you’ve got the opportunity to get others motivated to act, too.”