7 Questions with Michael Newmark of Clark University and Heather Vaillette of Sodexo
One of the best parts of being part of the Freight Farms team is talking to our freight farmers and hearing about their successes, their businesses, their customers, and their challenges. They are a wealth of information, so now we are sharing some of their stories with you!
Students are demanding sustainable, locally grown food now more than ever. Universities and their food service teams have the opportunity to truly transform the food landscape on campus by adapting new technologies and innovation that embrace sustainability, health and diversity. In January 2016, Clark University and Sodexo brought the LGM to campus to provide students the freshest greens possible. Since then, their student operator has successfully been growing hyper-local produce just feet from where it's served in Clark's dining hall. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Clark and Sodexo about how they integrated the Leafy Green Machine into their current operations.
You can watch our live webinar with Clark University and Sodexo to learn how they worked together to tackle the challenge of bringing local food to campus.
Freight Farms (FF): What about growing food on campus was compelling to you? Are there any other projects in place on campus besides the Leafy Green Machine?
Michael Newmark (MN): We like to say that it doesn’t get any more local than grown on campus! Just to watch Nick, our resident Freight Farmer harvest the lettuce and walk it straight to the kitchen have it washed, and then brought straight to the salad bar for service is incredible. Adding the Freight Farms operation to our dining program made total sense as it aligned perfectly with our mission of serving from-scratch dishes made of wholesome, fresh, and local ingredients whenever possible. We also believe in not only providing a quality program to our students but also development for our employees that includes culinary skills as well as knowledge about ingredients as well and truly learning how to utilize products in house reduce waste. The Freight Farms program provides the opportunity for our staff to find ways to use the on-campus greens throughout the dining hall and retail locations.
FF: How has student interest around food shifted over the past few years in regards to local sourcing and sustainability?
Heather Vaillette (HV): Students are more interested and engaged on this topic than ever before. The General Manager, Michael Newmark meets with students regularly to discuss providing more and more local sustainable options. Sodexo Dining Services also offers kitchen tours, Freight Farms tours, participates in the Real Food Challenge and sits on the Food Systems Working Group on campus. We are intimately involved in all aspects of the student dining experience from the dining room to the class room. Students are much more involved than in years past. Students want to know where their food comes from, how it’s prepared and care about the people whose hands prepare their meals.
FF: How did bringing the Leafy Green Machine onto your campus help fulfill your goals?
HV: The simple answer is that we are able to reduce our lettuce purchases from our vendors and provide a better quality lettuce product. You can taste the difference. The bigger picture is that the Leafy Green Machine provides additional mediums of connecting to the student experience. Through sustainable internships, farm tours, adding to the Real Food Challenge percentage and supporting the university’s entrepreneurship and science program have all added to our involvement with the student body and supported the university’s initiatives.
FF: What have been some of the reactions from students and faculty after bringing the farm to campus? How have they been impacted?
MN: Students are excited and thankful to know we are growing lettuce and other items on campus. We conduct two to three tours per month at the farm. Perspective students are also introduced to the Leafy Green Machine as it is housed right outside of the Admissions Office. We love the fact that Brad McNamara graduated with his Master’s Degree from Clark University and that the prototype was tested right here on campus. Our team knew Freight Farms before it became a nationally recognized brand and students see that as an opportunity for themselves that they too can “make it happen.”
FF: How have your campus’ food operations been impacted since bringing the LGM on campus?
HV: We identify the lettuce anytime it is used on campus. Customers see that it was grown on campus and that makes them feel even better about their food choice and selection. Our culinary team has also shown further engagement on local purchasing since the LGM has been brought on campus and it has added to the program in University that is essentially sitting in a food desert, in the middle New England’s second most populous city.
FF: Who operates the Leafy Green Machine and where does the produce go on campus?
MN: Our farmer, Nick, manages the LGM and works directly with the chef to determine when crops are harvested and what the needs are in advance. Sodexo uses the lettuce in retail, resident and catering operations. The majority of the lettuce is used in the main dining hall salad bar. We’ve also used the lettuce in specific retail concepts such as “create your own salad,” deli sandwiches and catering events. During commencement and reunions, our dining hall is closed, so the majority of greens during those extremely busy catering weeks came right from on campus with the LGM. Alumni love hearing about the farm and how it has become a part of our program. The greens are, well, just that…green. Picked at the peak of perfection rather than before they are ready so that it could be shipped to us. It’s an entirely different product and one look at it tells you that it’s hyper-local.
FF: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your farm on campus?
MN: Freight Farms has helped us complete the full circle vision of sustainability for our dining program at Clark University. It’s amazing to see how far the program has come since Sodexo started working with Clark University in 2007. What began with introducing composting to the university to kick-start the sustainability program in 2007 now includes so much more including waste reduction efforts, labor training programs, Real Food Challenge commitments, energy and water reduction efforts and now the Freight Farms program.