On Teaching Gardens, for Robin Hadnett

Teaching garden also provides opportunity for dining services.

When the school of family and consumer sciences at the University of Akron in Ohio wanted to plant a culinary teaching garden to supplement its coursework, the school contacted dining services personnel to see if they’d like to be involved. We spoke to Robin Hadnett, general manager of residential dining, about how her department was able to aid in the garden’s construction and what the future holds for the garden.

Q. How did the idea for the garden come about?

The garden was the brainchild of the school of family and consumer sciences. They do a lot of classes not only about nutrition but also about preparing food. They decided they wanted to start growing some fresh vegetables that they could use for the meals prepared as part of this coursework. The garden would also help teach students about how to actually grow these items. They wanted the students to appreciate what goes into the food a little bit more.

We have always had a collaboration with that college, which for us has been almost like having dietitians on call. I work with a lot of their students. Every Tuesday we give them hands-on work experience. I give them projects to work on such as nutritional analysis of menus. This year the school reached out to me and ask if we’d be interested in taking part in the garden and using it to grow our own herbs and vegetables. We thought that was a fantastic idea. This way we have our herbs in the fall and we can actually advertise in the dining hall that these were grown on campus. I thought it was a great opportunity for us.

Q. What is the garden currently being used for?

The garden is the outdoor classroom for the school of family and consumer sciences. It is now in its second year of planting vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that students in nutrition and dietetics programs will use in meal preparation classes. Funding for the garden was provided by a $10,000 gift from The University of Akron Women's Committee. UA's grounds crew handled the bed preparation.

We’ve got blueberry bushes over there and lavender that they planted last year that has come back beautifully. They also planted unique items such as borage. It’s kind of an old-fashioned herb that people didn’t know much about. They have planted tomatoes, peppers and pole beans. This summer dining services took over one whole end of the garden, where we have planted basil, thyme, dill, cilantro, oregano and tarragon.  

Q. Are there any plans in place to secure vegetables for the dining hall?

Not at this point. We are going to allow the school to use them for their advanced food prep classes. Typically when they get their food for their classes they order it through me so this is skipping that step. What we talked about for next year is really expanding what we plant in the garden. I was very inspired by The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, which grows a lot of items that chefs all over the country use. They grow specialty produce and they also have a program called Veggie U. where kids in the area can go to the garden and learn about the produce. I’m hoping that since I have a good relationship with Farmer Jones from The Chef’s Garden we can use his advice to take our garden even further by adding some really unique items. Then we can start using those items in the dining hall and catering.

Q. What were some of the challenges in establishing the garden?

I’m not sure there were any big challenges. I think maybe one of the challenges is just working with different personalities. We had some strong personalities clash, but we worked it out. My chef is really into farming so he really took to this and ran with it. I was really happy we were able to get an irrigation system installed this year. I was worried about that. 

Q. What kind of advice would you give to other operators who might want to do something similar?

I think they should. As more people and campuses are heading down a sustainable road, I think having a garden like this speaks to that. Here we are growing food on our own campus that we are going to be using in the dining hall. It’s also good for the students to actually touch and feel and see what the process of growing these fruits and vegetables is all about. We’re actually looking into installing an indoor herb garden so we can have fresh herbs year round.