(Left to right) Amy Hoops, quality assurance and purchasing coordinator, Lois Serfozo, assistant general manager, and Gail Finan, University Dining Services director with a bowl of Red Fire lettuce grown in the hoop house.

(Left to right) Amy Hoops, quality assurance and purchasing coordinator, Lois Serfozo, assistant general manager, and Gail Finan, University Dining Services director with a bowl of Red Fire lettuce grown in the hoop house.

Dining Services bringing food from local farms to campus tables

Cucumbers, green peppers, melons and sweet corn are among the locally grown produce University Dining Services (UDS) brought to dining centers across campus last summer. Now the University has become part of a pilot project to grow fresh vegetables locally during the winter in “hoop houses,” which are similar to greenhouses but use almost no energy or heat.

Lettuce thrives in the hoop house at Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse.

Red Fire lettuce grown in a hoop house at Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse was delivered last week to the Bowling Greenery. The project was funded through a grant from the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT). “We’re very excited that this technology is available in northwest Ohio,” said Amy Hoops, quality assurance and purchasing coordinator for dining services. “This is a way to feed people in our area at a very low energy cost.”

The new technology could extend the University’s ability to serve fresh, locally grown food year ‘round. In the summer, “when produce is at its best in Ohio, we have few students,” Hoops said.

She and Lois Serfozo, UDS assistant general manager, were guests at a demonstration of the growing method Feb. 5 at Bittersweet Farms. Also attending was U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo), whose office works closely with CIFT to identify “ways of feeding ourselves without depending on California and Florida,” Hoops said.

“The hoop house is just four layers of plastic, with something like a hair dryer to circulate air between the layers, and it’s not warm inside like a greenhouse,” she explained. “The real key is situating it properly, maintaining the right humidity, preparing the soil and knowing what varieties will grow well in it.

“We’d love to find a place to use hoop house technology closer to campus,” she added.

A grand plan
She and Dining Services Director Gail Finan share a passion for bringing locally grown food to campus. “It’s been Gail’s goal since coming here as director,” Hoops said.

As the daughter of a local farm family, Hoops is especially pleased to support local growers. “We returned $15,000 to the local economy last summer,” she said.

BGSU was invited to participate in the hoop house project by CIFT, which has also played a pivotal role in connecting the University to local farmers. Though that had been their goal, Finan and Hoops had had limited success until becoming involved with the organization. They had bought cucumbers and peppers from FFA students at Eastwood, but without a campus central receiving office, the process of each dining hall checking the produce for quality and the farmers’ making multiple stops on campus proved unworkable.

Then, through its Farm to Chef program, CIFT associate program director Rebecca Singer put Finan and Hoops in touch with distributors Vince and Charlotte Zelenak of Vin Char Produce in Bowling Green. That was the key to the kingdom of locally grown strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelon, tomatoes and more, Hoops said. “They assure the quality and that the produce is clean and properly packed,” she said. The tomatoes actually come from a hoop house at Riehm Farms in Tiffin.

“It’s worked out tremendously well,” said Charlotte Zelenak of the relationship. “Quality is the first thing for us, and it’s the first thing for the University. We’ve all been very satisfied.”

Singer said the process of developing connections with farmers and buyers and distributing locally grown food is quite complicated, and the BGSU relationship has proved valuable to CIFT as well. “We had worked for some time to find a school that could purchase the quantity necessary to be worthwhile for a grower, and having a direct connection with BGSU has been very accommodating.

“It’s also a great resource for feedback on what things we need to change and improve upon,” she added. “We want to keep putting the focus on ‘local’ and we hope we can keep making that happen. We certainly appreciate all Bowling Green is doing and all their insights.”

Hoops, Finan and the Zelenaks attended a CIFT-sponsored dinner last summer at Diva restaurant in Toledo, honoring local partnerships and demonstrating what can be done with locally grown foods.

“CIFT is really doing their job, and I’m very happy to be working with them,” Hoops said. “We’ve been taking baby steps toward our goal and now we can see a lot more possibilities.”

CIFT is the food technology division of EISC Inc., a network of engineers and business advisors who work with small companies to apply research and technology solutions to help them better their market positions. One of CIFT’s services is to help local farmers find better ways to distribute their products.

Now that the lettuce crop has gone by, the Bittersweet Farms hoop house will be replanted for the next crop. “We expect fresh tomatoes by the end of May,” Hoops said. “And we’re looking forward to fresh asparagus this spring from our local farmers.”

February 25, 2008