Seeding Sustainability

At the George School, in Newtown, Pa, CulinArt is teaching students about sustainability by growing its own produce in a 400-square-foot campus garden.

Many foodservice operators are wrestling with the question of how to make their units "sustainable" to one degree or another. For most, running an environmentally conscious cafeteria means buying only non-endangered fish and seafood, committing resources to a recycling program, or buying local produce when it's available.

Then there are operators like Joe Ducati, general manager for CulinArt at the George School in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown, Pa. Ducati knows exactly where he belongs in this debate: right in the trenches, getting his hands dirty, literally. Earlier this year, Ducati created a garden on the 265-acre campus of this 540-student boarding and day school. Over the summer, he has been tending the 400-square-foot garden, cultivating the soil, pulling the weeds, watering the plants and harvesting the produce for use in the dining room for the various camps and conferences that take place here over the summer.

"We've planted bush beans, three kinds of tomatoes (golden, Roman and beefsteak,) cucumbers, squash, hot peppers, corn, radishes, carrots, broccoli, mesclun mix, romaine, leaf lettuce, oregano, chervil, chives and basil," Ducati explains. "It is an experiment. It's still on a very small scale. If I can grow enough items for a salad bar once a week, that would be great."

Ducati gives credit for the project's germination to Nancy Starmer, the head of the George School, which was founded in 1893 by the Religious Society of Friends.

"There are two reasons, really, for our becoming involved with this project," says Starmer. "First of all, we are a Quaker school, and stewardship is one of the basic principles of a Quaker education."

"The other," she continues, "is that I have a daughter attending the Friedman School for Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, where she is pursuing her master's degree in sustainable agriculture. She's been prodding me to see what we are doing about sustainability, and the information she sends to me I pass on to Joe."

Ducati, however, needed only a slight push toward creating the garden. He has tended gardens ever since he was a child, despite the fact he grew up in Brooklyn. "Gardening has always been a passion for me," he notes. "Growing up in Brooklyn, we had a postage-stamp piece of land in the yard, and we crammed vegetables into every available inch of space."

CulinArt commits: It also helped that CulinArt had begun its own investigation into sustainability. The theme of CulinArt's annual food show last spring was "Sustainable Solutions."

"There is a lot of interest in sustainability out there," says Roger Beaulieu, the company's director of culinary development, "but sustainability needs the support of clients. Certainly one of the things that will make the George School project successful is the support from the head of the school. There is quite a sense of community there, and this will become an example of what we can do, given the space and the opportunity."

Using a fallow field: To begin his project, Ducati took over a portion of a garden used by the school horticulture class. "The class uses only a fraction of the space, so I asked them if I could till the rest," says Ducati. "Students helped me during the school year, and I've handled it for the summer."

In addition, the school has an "energy center," which is a combination greenhouse and weather station, complete with solar energy panels. In the fall, Ducati plans to grow cherry tomatoes and a variety of lettuces in the greenhouse.

The foodservice department also has begun composting its kitchen waste, although getting students to join in by adding their food waste has not borne fruit yet.

"This land used to be a dairy farm," Ducati explains. "We have these stone compartmental structures where the grounds crew dumps leaves and other plant waste. We dump our kitchen waste on top of the leaves and the grounds crew uses a front-loader to turn it all. Next year when I till the soil I will use the compost as fertilizer."

Starmer says she hopes the program helps to make the school more energized about environmental issues in general. "I think we really need to be concerned about energy consumption," she notes. "We need to look at waste disposal and recycling, and buying locally because that is linked to energy consumption. And it's not just us; as a nation we need to be more concerned about these issues."

Plans for the future: Certainly, CulinArt appears to be poised to become more involved. Beaulieu says the company is examining ways to improve its purchasing of local produce and is following guidelines for seafood usage set down by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.

"But our biggest push will be encouraging the buying of local produce," he adds. "We can save money on the cost of travel; what used to cost $2,000 to ship from California now costs $6,000 or even $8,000. We also get a fresher product and we are supporting the local economy."

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