SUNY-ESF Incorporates locally-grown produce into Trailhead Cafe Menu

SUNY-ESF Incorporates locally-grown produce into Trailhead Cafe Menu

Students at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry are eating locally sourced produce in on-campus dining centers for the first time this fall. 

As part of a weeklong program called “The Honorable Harvest,” The Trailhead Café, ESF’s new dining facility that opened in March 2013, is providing a special garden-to-table menu for students. One menu item, a “Three Sisters” salad, featured locally grown zucchini, squash, corn, tomatoes and parsley. Another item, the “Wild Rice Salad,” included locally grown carrots, tomatoes, scallions, and pumpkin seeds.

The produce is all grown at a student-run garden on LaFayette road in Syracuse. The land is owned by ESF as an experiment station, and the school allows one Green Campus Initiative, a student organization, use a large piece of the land. ESF also funds the club with money for supplies.

Olivia Donachie, a junior in natural resources management and and the Garden Chair of GCI, says that anyone who wants to get involved with the program is more than welcome.

“We do trips on the weekend and we’ll take anyone who wants to go who’s in the club, or some people come who just want to do volunteer hours,” said Donachie. “It’s pretty cool, we just go and maintain it and we’re allowed to do whatever we want with it.”

According to Donachie, in the past whatever members of GCI are present during the harvest would split the food up between themselves. She says that since that usually ended up being a lot of food for so few people, many GCI members cook their food and bring it to club meetings so everyone can enjoy.

Although fall is peak harvesting season, the process to grow these crops starts months beforehand.  A lot of the work happens during the summer, and so GCI members from the Syracuse area help keep things maintained. To grow the vegetables, GCI uses a natural fertilizer from the greenhouses created using an aquaponics system. Aquaponics is the process by which fish waste is repurposed as a natural fertilizer, explained Donachie.

Additionally, GCI has its own program that produces compost to keep the ground fertile. According to Donachie, the school doesn’t produce enough compost to satisfy all of the garden’s needs, so GCI also buys compost from an outside producer. The composting system at ESF was just rebuilt. It is compromised of three huge bins, each at a different stage of the composting. In addition to The Trailhead Café composting all of its food waste there everyday, each floor of the school has composting bins and students are encouraged to bring in their organic waste from home, said Donachie.

At this time of the year, GCI is focused on closing everything up for the winter, and doing things like laying woodchips so the weeds won’t grow. When it gets really cold and everything dies, they take big bags of leaves that people put at the curb and cover all of the beds. That way when it snows the leaves compact and turn into organic matter, which is an easy way to add nutrients to the soil.

According to Jim Kim, GCI’s composting chair, this garden-to-table program benefits the ESF community in a number of ways. First, the program allows the college to rely on its own source for soil and nutrients to further reach their goal to become carbon neutral. It also allows for first-hand education on composting, and ensures that the food waste generated on the ESF campus is reconstituted and reused.

“We learn all about how to practice sustainability, and it’s nice to see the school putting those lessons into action,” said Nichole Byron, an ESF junior. “I’m happy that I’m at a school that’s supporting these student-grown programs.”

SUNY ESF is not the only school trying to transition to a locally-sourced model. For the first time this year, the dining services department at the State University of New York at Cortland partnered with a local farmer to buy an acre of tomatoes, out of which the university plans to make tomato sauce for use in the dining halls.

“What people don’t realize is that these locally sourced practices have been going on in the upstate New York area for quite some time,” said Bill McNamara, director of dining services at SUNY Cortland. “New York state is a host to a lot of different kinds of farms, especially dairy, which means we’ve been locally sourcing these things for years unintentionally.

According to McNamara, the next big hurdle to overcome is building the menus He says that the short growing season in New York means that only few vegetables are grown in abundance.

“Cabbage and potatoes do well all year long, but you don’t want to build a full year of menus around those two things,” said McNamara. 

Although the introduction of these programs looks promising, Donachie stressed the complexity of getting these programs actually into action.

“The thing that’s hard is that our food service is actually the State University at Morisville food services, and they’re very strict with monitoring the cleanliness of food,” said Donachie. “We had to go through so many steps just to ensure that nothing is contaminated.” 

Some young produce at the GCI student garden. Photo: Nora Horvath

Some young produce at the GCI student garden. Photo: Nora Horvath

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