Ann Arbor — Students in University of Michigan dining halls this fall will eat fresh tomatoes, kale, peppers, cucumbers and a variety of other vegetables grown by their classmates at UM’s Campus Farm.
After attaining USDA Good Agricultural Practices food safety certification in June, students from the farm made their first fresh produce delivery to Mosher Jordan dining hall last month, playing their own role in helping the university to its goal of buying 20 percent sustainably sourced food by 2025.
The farm, next to the Matthaei Bottanical Gardens, has sprouted up quickly with students helping to construct a large hoop house last fall that will allow them to grow vegetables year-round. In addition, the university recently funded a farm manager position, which has helped student participants in the more technical aspects of becoming certified to sell their harvested products.
Interest in growing food on campus goes back more than a decade, with the Cultivating Community student organization constructing a garden at the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning. Now, students are working in concert with Michigan Dining to take those efforts to the next level.
“The students voiced that one of their highest priorities was to engage in sales to MDining,” farm manager Jeremy Moghtader said. “They wanted to have food grown by students, prepared by students and served to students. That felt like this was one of the most impactful ways that they could contribute to people learning about sustainable food on campus and also contribute directly to the sustainability of campus operations.”
Moghtader arrived at UM in 2016 after spending 12 years overseeing Michigan State University’s organic farm.
The Campus Farm is a flagship learning lab for the UM Sustainable Food Program, which was formed in 2012 as an umbrella organization of food-related student groups to promote sustainable food systems within the campus community.
After securing a $42,000 Planet Blue Innovation Fund grant to get the farm up and running, students have maintained operations on the farm primarily through volunteer efforts.
On any given Friday evening, students are transported from the Ginsberg Center to the farm, where anywhere from 20-50 volunteers give a couple hours of their time to maintaining the farm.
“It creates a personal interaction with the food,” said UM sophomore Blake McWatters, an evolutionary biology, ecology and biodiversity major. “Instead of food coming off of a truck, it means the food is coming from students. I think it’s important to know where your food is coming from. With the problems we have with food insecurity, it means a lot to be able to see what goes into that.”
McWatters is one of three full-time student managers who keeps the farm running smoothly when many of its volunteers head home for the summer.
He’s joined by UM junior Haley Kerner, an environment major who began volunteering on the farm as a freshman. Kerner and the other managers work with Moghtader and Sustainable Food Program Manager Alex Bryan to determine what produce UM dining halls need. They harvest the food on a Wednesday and deliver to the halls on Thursday.
The food is then purchased by Michigan Dining based on need and is ready for consumption, all within a 24-hour period.
“There is input from the chefs at MDining,” Kerner said. “The halls know what they want and need. We can’t grow everything at volume, but if it’s a good fit and something we can produce well, and it’s something they want, those are the kinds of opportunities we’re looking for.”
Michigan Dining Executive Chef Frank Turchan said the students’ effort on the Campus Farm is aligned with their efforts to become more locally sourced and sustainable.
Beyond simply providing food for the dining halls, the partnership between the Campus Farm and Michigan Dining allows chefs like Turchan to communicate with students how to most effectively grow and use the food once it is harvested.
With plans to build two more hoop houses to grow even more food in the coming year, the Campus Farm has only begun tapping into its potential, Turchan said.
“The students are involved from seed to plate,” Turchan said. “The nice thing is we’re educating students that there is more than one way to cook squash or tomatoes, showing them how to take the product their growing and use it in 5 or 10 different ways.”
“We are trying to be more involved, not only with the cooking, but on the other end, by going to the garden and talking with the farmer to really understand the product,” he added. “We’re very lucky to have the open and quick communication with the students and farms who grow for us (locally). I can’t wait to see what we can do in the next five years.”