Farm-to-table comes to campus
Maryville University is doing great things with their Leafy Green Machine! After hearing about Freight Farms through the University of Oklahoma (who are also Freight Farmers!), the Fresh Ideas team moved quickly to learn all they could about getting a farm onto Maryville University’s campus. Just six months after learning about Freight Farms, Fresh Ideas and Maryville launched their own hydroponic container farm in St. Louis!
We chatted with Olivia, the Maryville farmer, and a Fresh Ideas rep about how the Leafy Green Machine contributes to the campus’ dining operations!
Freight Farms: Not many people can say that they’re full-time hydroponic farmers! Did you have any farming experience before working at the Maryville/Fresh Ideas farm?
Olivia Engel: I've been growing food on my porch since 2010, and I also worked on a rural farm at the Ithaca Zen Center in 2017 right before starting this position. Our biggest focus was salad there, too!
FF: How did you become involved in this project?
OE: I met Linda, Head of Dining Services at Maryville, in 2012 when I ran the Green Dining Alliance. I was her sustainability auditor and consultant for Gander Dining Hall, and she reached out to me when the Freight Farm idea became solidified.
FF: Walk me through your typical work week at the farm!
OE: I work full-time, spending time in the farm every day. I plant, transplant, and harvest every week. There are always unexpected challenges to overcome with equipment and climate, and I'm always learning. I also give guest lectures on campus about twice a semester, focusing on sustainable agriculture and food justice.
FF: What do you grow in the farm?
OE: The farm is divided into halves: spring mix for the salad bar on one side, with seven heirloom varieties to keep color and texture exciting; and just "green forest" romaine on the other. The school is growing, and demand for greens keeps going up. Offering the kitchen a pure romaine crop works well for deli and salad bar.
Freight Farms: We know that Fresh Ideas and Maryville are big into promoting sustainability. How does the farm tie into your goals?
Fresh Ideas: Sustainability is an important part of dining services and we’re an advocate of educating our students on the food we serve and where it came from. Fresh Ideas also has a variety of campus gardens, tower gardens and partners with Greener Fields Together to ensure our food is locally sourced and our chefs have access to the freshest ingredients available. We also conduct Plate Waste Studies across our campuses, in addition to our Green & Go reusable container program, composting, recycling, and elimination of Styrofoam.
Separate from Fresh Ideas, Maryville takes sustainability very seriously. They have a fully developed sustainability degree program, ‘green’ student groups, and even dispense awards to recognize student efforts.
FF: What other on-campus initiatives did the farm help you accomplish?
FI: Fresh Ideas believes in educating our diners, not just feeding them. There a special student internship program that was created this year specially for the Leafy Green Machine. Our farmer, Olivia, also gives presentations on campus. Thanks to the farm, we’re able to educate students on sustainability as it relates to food production, food waste and the power of green initiatives on campus and in our daily lives.
FF: How have you spread the word about the farm?
OE: We have a dedicated Instagram account that focuses on the Freight Farm which highlights day to day operations, our internship program, and our farm-to-table experience. We offer tours of the farm and hold special Freight Farm awareness events for students to try our fresh ingredients and learn about the process.
FF: What are people’s attitudes towards food on the Maryville campus?
OE: We're in the Midwest, and the suburban Midwest at that! There aren't a lot of local, fresh options, and cultural attitudes are behind the coasts. But there are lots of young people in this region who want to connect with their food, want a more environmentally just and balanced world; the Maryville Freight Farm is often their first exposure to putting sustainability into practice. And you get to eat the results!
FF: How have the student body and faculty responded to having a container farm right on campus?
FI: Everyone–students, faculty and staff–love what the Freight Farm brings to the table. There has also been great community feedback from the St. Louis area. Maryville’s Freight Farm is the first and only in Missouri and we take pride in that.
FF: In your opinion, what’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
OE: People need fresh produce. They need real nutrition, and it needs to be affordable. But there is no issue in the food system that can be solved without considering many others, including social issues. People and planet are always interconnected. We have to think holistically and work together.
A student perspective
The Maryville farm intern chimed in on her unique experience.
FF: How would you categorize students’ attitudes towards food on the Maryville campus?
We love knowing that the salad bar ingredients that we’re serving are not just local, but they are hyper-local. It’s also incredible that Maryville has partnered with Fresh Ideas to ensure our campus is sustainable as possible.
FF: Other than learning how to grow food hydroponically, what takeaways have you gotten from your work?
Working in the farm has definitely given me a better understanding for biology and chemistry. It’s also been eye-opening to learn how little changes can make a big impact when it comes to farming. The science behind growing food hydroponically has been exciting to learn about and become a part of.”
Learn more about how our container farms are changing university campuses!
Check out other schools that are growing food right on site!