Just one week into this spring, Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., already was harvesting its own tomatoes. Three years ago, KSU worked with the Georgia Department of Transportation to transform a former 25-acre truck yard into a farm with 14 plantable acres, two greenhouses, a hydroponic lab and a mushroom garden. The tomatoes, along with a variety of herbs, are grown hydroponically year round and are destined for the college’s pizzas.
While May is the beginning of peak season for harvesting local produce in many states, some operators are finding ways to extend seasonality and local sourcing into the cooler months. Just-picked fruits and vegetables not only are more flavorful, they boast greater nutritional benefits. According to the USDA, the longer fruits and vegetables are transported or stored, the larger the loss of antioxidants, including vitamin C, and phytonutrients such as lycopene.
KSU’s own farm, which is less than three miles from campus, augments the hydroponic facility, growing thousands of pounds of tomatoes in the warmer months for Dining Services, says Marketing Manager Joshua Wendling. Menus are flexible enough to incorporate other seasonal produce as soon as it reaches its peak.
Up north, where the growing season is shorter, Chef Cameron Clegg of Parkhurst at Highmark, a corporate-dining contractor in Pittsburgh, Pa., is able to grow about 5 percent of produce in season. The rest of the year, he sources herbs and greens from an indoor hydroponic tower, and they are generating buzz on the menu, he says.
Parkhurst’s new beverage offerings include a chilled lemon, spearmint and strawberry-infused water featuring lemon balm, a lesser-known herb. A Bibb salad with green goddess dressing highlights hydroponic cilantro, basil and oregano.
When sourcing from local farmers in season, Clegg emphasizes the importance of establishing familiarity with what grows in the area, and then staying on top of weather conditions. “Weather spikes or peaks will drive purchasing value,” he says. “Work directly with purveyors and farmers and develop good detail as to when you can take advantage of peak produce. Capturing vegetables at peak season is a key in our menu planning.”