How can a dining service that serves 25,000 meals a day source from a garden on a tenth of an acre?

How can a dining service that serves 25,000 meals a day source from a garden on a tenth of an acre?

Here at the Food Literacy Project, we’ve toyed with ways that students can have a hand in the food that ends up in their dining hall. After visiting the Growing Power conference this September, we were keen on growing sprouts in every dining hall, before we realized the e.coli risk was too great. So, what about sourcing produce from our very own Harvard Community Garden?

The Garden is on less than a tenth of an acre — and it’s planted in raised beds. Currently, most of the harvest goes to the Harvard Faculty Club, where they produce far fewer meals than the residential program.

This spring, the Dining Services team began to brainstorm ways to incorporate produce from the Garden into our residential dining program. Our residential program spans 13 dining halls and serves 6,500 students —  providing produce in such volume is a challenge for small farms and gardens.  We use 500 pounds of a vegetable like zucchini to serve a sauteed zucchini dish across all the houses. Put in perspective, the Harvard Community Garden harvested 500 pounds last year during the whole season.

Given the size of our dining program and the size of our orders, our purchasing department is careful to respect the relative sizes of farms. For smaller farms, we may order less so that we don’t buy out all their product. For all the benefits that a big buyer like Harvard offers (financial security, high volume), we also have the potential to wipe out a farm’s whole harvest if we’re not careful. Similarly, we want to be careful around the Harvard Community Garden’s produce; the Garden benefits from putting their produce in a number of venues: the Harvard Faculty Club, cooking demonstrations, on-site sales, garden festivals — not just the Dining hall stream.

This spring, we planted four herb beds in the Garden : sage, tarragon, mint, & lavender. Executive chef Martin Breslin chose pungent herbs, so they’d stretch far in meals. We planted several species –in case one crop failed. With pungent herbs, it seemed possible that the garden could produce enough to supply all the dining halls with enough for a night at dinner.

Over the summer, Harvard Garden interns Emelie and Francisco tended our beds.

Just this morning, the Food Literacy Project harvested the herbs. In the cool morning, before the sun rose fully, we snipped, weighed and bunched. By the end of the hour, we had harvested:

8 pounds, 11 oz of sage, 3 pounds mint, & 3.5 pounds french tarragon.

We saved about 4 pounds to dry (we may return later to harvest more for drying) and distributed the rest among the dining halls. This evening, each chef will be highlighting one of the herbs at their weekly chef’s demonstration table.

By the end of this week, we’ll have a better sense of how the table worked. We’re thinking of this as a pilot. We haven’t yet calculated the cost/ounce of these herbs, as compared to our usual source, but the yield on these herbs was excellent. Given the low input required for these herbs (in fact, tarragon enjoys neglect), our next goal is to establish more herb beds around campus. (Or what about roofs?) The dining hall can certainly put those herbs to use.

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