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College campuses are teaching the importance of the farm-to-fork connection by sourcing and growing local produce.

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August 26, 2019

Tyler’s Farm harvests greens with roots attached, so produce stays fresher longer.
Photo courtesy of Tyler's Farm

from rural communities in the Midwest to urban epicenters on the West Coast, colleges and universities are getting creative with how they bring fresh produce to campus. By going straight to the source of the food supply chain to building partnerships with local farmers, institutions are teaching the value of the farm-to-fork connection to the next generation.

“There is a special experience that can be formed by engaging with farmers and creating amazing meals with their harvest,” says Chef Adam Schmith, culinary arts director at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Elyria, Ohio, west of Cleveland. “The food always tastes better when you know where it was grown and the dedication and passion that it was grown with.”

Driven by sustainability, unique selections or farm-fresh flavor, there are a multitude of reasons university chefs are seeking farm partnerships. Here are some examples of how schools are working with local produce growers to impact their food supply.

Urban farming organization Lettuce Grow maintains the hydroponic system at the USC Teaching Garden.
Photo courtesy of USC

Connecting with local farmers

Since its inception seven years ago, LCCC’s culinary curriculum always included a farm-to-fork course, designed to recognize the contributions of farms surrounding campus. But the class didn’t see enrollment until Schmith became director in 2016 and ramped up the program by strengthening ties to local farmers.

Schmith visited local farms to coordinate which products he could incorporate into the culinary curriculum, the student-run restaurant and the campus dining program. Through this process, he secured partnerships with a handful of local fish, dairy and livestock farmers and produce growers. In addition to supplying fresh ingredients, these partners also provide hands-on learning experiences for students in the program.

“Students travel to farms to meet the growers and learn daily procedures firsthand,” Schmith says. “Last fall, for example, students received a plot of land to plant lettuce and vegetables at Coleman Gardens in Avon Lake. They worked with the owners, Joe and Marcia Coleman, and learned how to prepare the land, seed and harvest the produce, then utilize it in the kitchen as a final project.”

LCCC also partners with Tyler’s Farm, a 6,000-square-foot hydroponic operation in Oberlin, Ohio. Owner Tyler Gogolek grows “lettuce in any leaf shape, color and texture available,” in addition to different varieties of kale, arugula, basil and other herbs. “Because of our selection and diversity, LCCC’s restaurants can provide more than just an ordinary salad,” he says.

“Because of our selection and diversity, LCCC’s restaurants can provide more than just an ordinary salad,” Gogolek says.
Photo courtesy of Tyler's Farm

Gogolek harvests greens with roots attached, so produce stays fresher longer in LCCC’s coolers. But the ingredients become more than just products on the shelf because students get to engage with the farmers who cultivated them.

“When you can put a face to something, all of a sudden it has meaning,” says Gogolek, a third-generation farmer with a greenhouse production degree. “You understand what goes into it to get it to your table, how it was grown and cared for, and why it’s important to support local farmers.”

After engaging with farmers, Schmith says students treat ingredients with more respect and creativity.

“Partnering with these farms gives the students an appreciation of the product they receive. Engaging in hands-on activities at the farms gives them an insight that they don’t get when a box of prewashed carrots arrives at the dock,” Schmith says. “They’re more resourceful when they’re using local ingredients, which translates into a larger sense of meaning and pride when delivering dishes to guests.”

After engaging with farmers, Schmith says students treat ingredients with more respect and creativity.
Photo courtesy of Tyler's Farm

Farming urban opportunities

Even urban campuses are finding innovative ways to farm. Administrators at the University of Southern California (USC) were exploring options to improve sustainability on campus when Eric Ernest, executive chef of USC Hospitality, suggested growing their own produce.

Ernest worked with Lettuce Grow, a Los Angeles-based urban farming organization formerly known as LA Urban Farms, to develop the USC Teaching Garden in 2015. Located behind the university-owned hotel, the plot consists of about 60 vertical tower gardens that grow greens, herbs and more to supply several restaurants on campus.

“Don’t just accept that you’re a landlocked campus without an agricultural reach,” says Kris Klinger, assistant vice president of USC Hospitality and USC Hotel in Los Angeles. “There are so many ways to improve your sustainability efforts and make a difference. Get creative and find ways to do it.”

“USC Hospitality wanted to find a way to get closer to their ingredients and reconnect people with food,” says Niels Thorlaksson, lead farmer at Lettuce Grow. “We wanted to showcase how technology can convert unused spaces into productive and efficient ways to sustainably grow your own food.”

Lettuce Grow maintains the hydroponic system at the USC Teaching Garden, which uses 90% less space and 95% less water than traditional agriculture. Thorlaksson’s organization grows all the seedlings at nurseries in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Texas, then delivers the young plants to USC and other urban farm locations.

The Teaching Garden has grown everything from cucumbers and melons to chilies and tomatoes, although the towers primarily produce fast-growing, high-yield greens like kale, lettuce and arugula, and herbs like basil, parsley and cilantro. The year-round operation harvests about 3,000 plants each week, which are delivered to kitchens within minutes.

“There’s a dialogue between the chefs and the urban farmers, where we’re always playing with new ingredients,” says Ernest, who meets with farmers regularly to plan different varieties. “From that perspective, it’s a great collaboration.”

In addition to supplying fresh ingredients, produce growers and other food partners provide hands-on learning experiences for students in the LCCC culinary program.
Photo courtesy of LCCC

Teaching the value of farm-to-fork

Although the volume of produce that comes from the USC Teaching Garden can’t meet the demands of the large residential dining halls, the urban farm helps the university save money and improve sustainability by sourcing certain ingredients hyper-locally. But the program’s impact far exceeds the fresh greens it supplies.

“We called this The Teaching Garden because our goal is to educate people about how produce is grown,” says Kris Klinger, assistant vice president of USC Hospitality and USC Hotel. “It puts them in touch with it and allows them to touch it, as opposed to just having ingredients show up in a truck.”

Since USC started its Teaching Garden four years ago, more than a dozen other universities across the country have launched similar farms.

“Seeing an institution like USC embrace a program like this brings more awareness to sustainability issues,” says Thorlaksson, whose organization operates urban farms for corporate, academic and residential clients around the country. “It paves the way for others to start making changes of their own.”

Whether colleges cultivate relationships with local produce growers or find ways to grow their own, there are plenty of opportunities to strengthen the connections between farmers and culinarians and teach the next generation the value of local produce.

“It’s so important to understand where your ingredients are coming from and how much effort goes into growing,” Thorlaksson says. “When you have that connection with your food, you’ll appreciate it more.”