Food & Drink

Eats & drinks: Students learn lessons through growing their own food

State College Area High School biology students work in a laboratory where they grow their own food.
State College Area High School biology students work in a laboratory where they grow their own food. Photo provided

When I went to high school back in the Dark Ages we had to memorize terms. My recollection is that symbiosis had something to do with mistletoe and live oaks, but I was fuzzy about the link.

New Age State College Area High School biology teacher Jack Lyke knows how to keep his class engaged. He knows that the way to teenagers’ brains is through their stomachs, and his class is growing food so they can learn all about the process of symbiosis.

Southern Alleghenies American Culinary Federation President Zach Lorber is another educator who’s devoted to offering programs and topics of interest to chefs and like-minded foodies that are a bit off the beaten path.

Last month’s ACF meeting was no exception. Seven guests outnumbered the three chefs at the ACF meeting that was held on Feb. 8 at the State High in the Lyke’s laboratory, where there’s a very interesting project underway with his students.

Aquaponics is a system that combines aquaculture, in this case raising tilapia, with hydroponics — cultivating plants in water. The relationship between the fish and the plants, in this case salad greens and basil, is symbiotic, with the fish excretions broken down by bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which serve as nutrients to the plants. The system is complete, and the water recirculates within the aquaculture system.

Not all of the biology students will get to reap the harvest in the lab, but all will see the dynamic system in action. Last May lucky ones shared the harvest in a Tank to Table feast, with tilapia po’boys prepared by chef Jeremiah Dick and his students in the culinary program at the high school.

The tilapia was raised in the lab and accompanied by a basil pesto and cherry tomatoes and lettuce, both raised in the system.

Food service director Megan Schaper is excited to have truly local produce for her lunchroom and includes the red and green leaf lettuces on the salad bar offering at the school cafeteria as often as a new crop is ready, about every five weeks.

Currently the greens are donated to the cafeteria, but eventually the plan is for the in-house sales to help offset the costs of the project, which was originally funded as a Farm to Table grant. New funding opportunities are needed to help move the project forward, and the Aquaponics Club includes fledgling grant writers that help to get the message out to the public.

Lyke’s PowerPoint presentation to the ACF attendees explained the process and the science. Aquaponics can grow lettuce in 25-28 days instead of a conventional growing period of 50 days, and the system uses 60-70 percent less water.

LED lights that optimize the light spectrum are used rather than fluorescent grow lights — and the lab is always looking for donations of LED lights and fish tanks so they can grow more. The aquaponics system supports 1 inch of linear fish length per gallon of water, which means that tilapia grow from fingerling to harvest size in 2 to 3 years.

The advanced biology students take daily measurements and photos that are later edited into time lapse videos that are posted on the classroom’s lively Facebook page,

Lyke, who is in his 20th year as a biology teacher, has sense of humor that is infectious, and it is easy to see how fun his project is for his students.

The current state of renovation at the high school is no hindrance; Lyke claims to have toppled the South Building solely to allow more natural sunlight into his lab, though the plant growth occurs primarily at night, in the dark.

He looks forward to the day when the renovations are complete and he can create an expanded aquaponics system in the 1000-square-foot greenhouse that will be on the roof of the renovated high school, and the students can grow more food for themselves and give the culinary arts students more raw material to create more tasty dishes.

According to Lyke, “this greenhouse is a school-wide cross-curricular project to expose more students to sustainable food production and eating healthily. The greenhouse will be run as a business with a research and development Science, Technology, Engineering and Math component.”

It’s clear that Lyke’s goal is not to have his students memorize the definition of symbiosis but to challenge the students not to create it in order to make the world a better place, to feed the hungry and to slow global warming.  

We can’t all go back to high school, now that it is so much more interesting, but everyone is invited to the next educational ACF meeting that will be held on March 14 in the Mountain View Room in Port Sky Café at Penn State Altoona. This is Lorber’s home turf.

The program is “Combi Ovens, Smoking, and Korean Flavors.” A combi oven is a commercial piece of equipment that is a combination convection oven and steamer made by Alto Shaam that has a built in smoker and is self-cleaning, with many options.

The exploration of Korean flavors will cover basic flavors and techniques, including kimchi, gochujang, bulgogi, galbi, bibimbop and more. Lorber, who recently took a bronze medal in a cooking competition at the National Association of College and University Food Service conference at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., for his ahi tuna recipe, looks forward to meeting area chefs and foodies who are interested in networking and learning about food trends in central Pennsylvania and far beyond.

For more information, contact Zach Lorber at or at You can also check out the Facebook page at or follow them on Instagram @acfsaca or Twitter @acfsaca.

Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (”Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink. com and can be reached at chef