Hydroponic garden adds new produce opportunities at Boozel

Chef Ryan harvests fresh Basil

Ryan Shontz, chef for AVI Fresh, surveys Boozel Dining Hall’s new hydroponic garden. The indoor garden was installed July 16 so that dining hall chefs could begin growing their own vegetables and herbs including lettuce, kale and basil for use in preparing the daily menu.

August 1, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University's commitment to being "green" and reducing its carbon footprint has been well documented. In fact, the University was ranked among the world's most environmentally friendly colleges and universities earlier this year.

In an effort to support sustainability, AVI Fresh, SRU's contract food vendor, and Pepsi, have teamed up to install a hydroponic garden in Boozel Dining Hall.

Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture, the method of growing plants without soil, and instead using nutrient solutions in water. This method has become a standard research and teaching technique, as well as a more sustainable solution for organizations to grow their own plants.

With the help of Katie Phibbs from Lettuce Do Good, the indoor garden was installed July 16 so that dining hall chefs could begin growing their own "garden" of vegetables and herbs including lettuce, kale and basil for use in preparing the daily menu.

Lettuce Do Good is an indoor gardening and STEM education company that serves restaurants and institutional dining halls in using hydroponics, LED lighting technology and renewable energy.

In addition to its original trio of produce, the hydroponic garden at Boozel will look to expand its growing power to include cilantro, peppers, radishes and microgreens, which are edible greens grown from the seeds of vegetables and fruit.

"Some time ago, I was looking for something hydro garden-related to bring to SRU and this (hydroponic) garden setup popped up, but we weren't able to do it at the time," said Joe Balaban, resident district manager for AVI. "But now, Pepsi has generously provided us with yearly funding for sustainability purposes, so it's perfect timing and we decided to do it.'"

Before the installation, AVI worked with the Robert A. Macoskey Center to use the fresh vegetables, herbs and other produce grown and harvested at the center. While the new in-house garden means there will be more use of herbs and vegetables grown on the premises, Balaban said the collaboration between AVI and the center will not be hindered. In fact, Balaban feels the hydroponic garden will improve the relationship between the two entities.

"One of our long-term goals is to really expand the impression about what is grown and utilized on campus. We've talked back and forth between ourselves and the center about how to do that. This garden just helps the process; it's an expansion of what's already being done ... home growing our own produce."

The garden is made up of three levels of trays with pod-sized holes called grow trays. Each tray sits on top of a container of constantly flowing nutrient-rich water that is always being filtered and aerated through coconut husks, feeding the seeds inside. It's a method that is faster than traditional outdoor gardening.

"It's very quick and efficient," said David Uram, executive chef for AVI. "We go through about a pound of basil every day when making our marinara sauce, so it'll be good for us to grow fresh herbs for everything we do."

Uram said that the garden will also help supply the compost bins at the center with exhausted coconut husks, thereby creating a cyclical relationship.

Balaban and Uram agreed that the hydro garden is also very user friendly, requiring no more than a few hours per week to check pH and nutrient levels as well as harvest. Every management-level employee will be trained to maintain the garden. The duo is also excited about having a "showpiece" to spur diners to learn more about sustainability.

"(The garden) really adds life to this space," Uram said. "The diners can see it in action and know what they are eating is fresh."

Aside from the weekly maintenance of nutrient levels in the water, Balaban said the garden also requires 12 continuous hours of light from a built-in system. Because the light is a harsh fluorescent magenta color, organizers decided it was best to save the lighting for overnight hours, opting for a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. "Diners will only have to be exposed to the lighting for roughly one hour each day and they won't have to wonder about the odd pink color of the plants caused by the lighting," Balaban said with a laugh. "All is well."

While both men are looking forward to the sustainability opportunities the garden will provide, Uram is excited to start really working on expanding the garden's variety of plants and making it his own.

"Whenever I'm looking for David, he's usually over at the garden snipping basil," Balaban said with a smile. "He's not hard to find."

MEDIA CONTACT: Megan Bush | 724.738.2091 | mxb1092@sru.edu