What do you remember about school lunches?

I ate them every day of my 12 years in the Carthage R-9 school system. Sloppy joes. Goulash. Vegetable stew. Fish sticks on Friday.

I remember my favorite of all the options was mashed potatoes smothered in a ground beef concoction. I’m not sure how they made the beef mixture, but it covered mashed potatoes so I was happy.

After a noontime venture last week, I now have a new favorite school lunch.

Renae Brownfield is a science teacher at Carthage Junior High School. I met her two years ago when my grandson, Atlas, joined the science club. That year, a small group of youngsters won $25,000 in technology for their school by winning Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow contest for the state of Missouri, competing against middle, junior high and senior high schools of all sizes.

This year, as the result of a Carthage R-9 Foundation grant, just before the start of school, I was part of a group that assembled hydroponic towers and planted 336 red and green romaine seedlings. There are timers for the lights and water pumps — and almost a “Jetsons” feel to the atmosphere.

The towers we set up were specifically for growing lettuce. And grow it did.

When I visited the classroom this past week, I found the towers producing lettuce so pretty you could only hope to find it at the store. I picked my lettuce and enjoyed the freshest salad ever. It was delicious, so clean and crisp. There’s really no need for lots of extras, but it was made even better when I realized Renae and I both sprinkle crushed crackers over our salads.

With a goal of improving nutrition for anyone who walks through the doors of the junior high, this project started when a class of special needs students Renae was teaching had difficulty focusing and staying on task. Providing healthy snacks to the students had an immediate positive effect, showing how important good nutrition is for us all. Sometimes Renea’s mother would supply homemade banana bread, or Bright Futures would contribute. Sitting together during snack time grew into a discussion on how to grow their own food.

Last spring, the science club project involved two packets of tomato seeds from Tomatosphere. One was a normal, everyday packet, and the second one contained seeds that had been to the International Space Station. The task was to see if the effects of outer space affected the seed germination. There was virtually no difference, so there’s no need to try and procure space grown food. But it’s fun saying I ate a tomato from the space station.

Now, there are not only lettuce and tomatoes at the junior high but also peppers and strawberries. There’s even a lettuce tower in the teacher’s lounge, ready for a salad or snack.

In time, with proper rotation, the towers will produce 100 heads of lettuce each week. Because there is such a plethora of lettuce, approximately 100 heads of lettuce have recently been donated to the Carthage Crisis Center.

This year is bittersweet because Renae is missing her co-sponsor, Samantha Haar, who died this summer. Renae is carrying on with purpose in memory of her forever friend, whose “heart encouraged all to solve problems large and small” with Feed the Need: Start From the Heart. While it was terrifying to start such an undertaking, mainly because she wanted to be a good steward of someone else’s money, she would welcome helping others with a similar project.

What a wonderful project serving others. With her contagious enthusiasm and giver’s heart, Renae Brownfield is a community treasure. Lettuce wish her continuing growing success.

Today’s Taste of Home recipes celebrate salads. The Cobb salad is one of the prettiest with its specific design on top. No need to strictly follow the ingredients. Make it your own. The French dressing goes on many different green salads and can be made with most of your pantry available ingredients.

Have a great week, and happy eating.

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Classic Cobb salad

6 cups torn lettuce

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 ripe avocado, peeled and chopped

3/4 cup chopped cooked ham

2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped

3/4 cup chopped cooked turkey

1 1/4 cups chopped fresh mushrooms

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

Red onion rings, lemon wedges and sliced ripe olives, optional for garnish

Arrange salad in large bowl. Place tomatoes across center, dividing the bowl in half. On one half, arrange avocado, ham and eggs in sections. On other half, arrange turkey, mushrooms and cheese. Garnish as desired. Serve with dressing of your choice. Yields 4 servings.

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Creamy French dressing

1 cup ketchup

1/2 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in blender or food processor; cover and process until blended. Store in refrigerator. Yields 1 3/4 cups.

Address correspondence to Cheryle Finley, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

Cheryle Finley is a food columnist for The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to Cheryle Finley, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

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