From the first days of breaking ground on the Student Farm at Penn State, Housing and Food Services (HFS) has been an active partner by supporting the farm financially and by purchasing and using farm produce in weekly menus. Now, with the Student Farm is in its third year of operation, HFS has strengthened that partnership through a $50,000 contribution from Auxiliary & Business Services. This financial contribution will help support paid student interns and an assistant farm manager.
Led by members of the Student Farm Club and housed within Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, the Student Farm gives students from across the University hands-on experience in all facets of farming and running a business—from planning for the upcoming growing season to growing, tending, and harvesting produce to inventory and supply chain management of a perishable product.
During the growing season, HFS purchases thousands of pounds of produce from the Student Farm—including lettuce mix, tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, beets, and herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, and parsley—to serve in campus dining commons as well as campus retail food operations.
“It’s become part of what we do,” says Jim Richard, senior director of Enterprise Services for Housing and Food Services and Student Farm mentor. “We buy from the farm weekly. The farm estimates their harvest on Tuesday, harvests our order on Thursday, the produce makes a less-than-two-mile trip from the farm to our warehouse, and we have those fresh ingredients in the dining commons by Friday to integrate into our menus.
“We also meet regularly with representatives of the Student Farm, so not only do we get access to the produce, we hear about what they’re planning—what crops they’re growing, how much they might have, when they will harvest. And they welcome our suggestions for what seeds to plant for the next season.”
The cooperation between HFS and the Student Farm doesn’t stop there. Through special dinners focusing on local foods, seasonal events at the farm, and much more, students have endless opportunities through the “living laboratory” whose mission is to create a sustainable food system within Penn State using food grown by students and for students.
One recent Student Farm Club member, for example, worked in Redifer Dining Commons and arranged for club members to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Redifer kitchen. Penn State chefs perform cooking demonstrations at the farm’s annual Harvest Fest, and Student Farm produce was featured last year at the President’s Tailgate for the Penn State-Pitt game.
Academic opportunities arise through the Student Farm as well. The farm manages hydroponically grown lettuces and herbs over the winter, and last year a club member received a research grant to run trials of different varieties to determine which are most productive in a hydroponic system. To research not only which varieties grew better but which varieties are most appealing to consumers, the student worked with other club members to hold a tasting trial in the dining commons while educating fellow students about the health benefits of leafy greens.
“Learning which lettuce varieties the students liked best contributed to the research project,” says Leslie Pillen, associate director of Farm and Food Systems at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute. “This is a great example of how our partnership with HFS supports diverse student learning.”
Pillen adds that financial support from HFS also supports Penn State’s educational mission. “The dining commons have to buy food, so why not buy it from students and have that money go right back into the educational mission of the institution? Our program is educating students about sustainable food systems, and it’s driven by students from start to finish.”
The $50,000 contribution from HFS to support interns and an assistant farm manager is critical to daily farm operations, Pillen says. “We’re committed to growing a quality, consistent product that is delivered on time. We’re also committed to education and outreach, and with students gone over the summer, having paid positions provides critical continuity.”
Kestrel Coon, the new assistant farm manager, serves as a resource for interns, walking them through daily decisions on the farm with the goal that the interns will become self-sustaining. Looking toward fall semester, Coon plans to meet with dining commons chefs to better understand what types of produce will be popular with students. “I’ll also be helping to incorporate the Student Farm into a variety of classes across disciplines,” she says. “The Student Farm’s foundation is made of community and education, and it shows from the dedication of our interns, to the enthusiasm of volunteers, to the integration of the Student Farm into curriculum, to the commitment of HFS to use and develop our product.”
Jim Meinecke, associate director of Residential Dining, anticipates that the partnership between the Student Farm and HFS will grow each year. “For the last two years, we have had an excellent partnership with the Student Farm, and it has been great to see,” he says. “Not only do we get fresh, hyper-local produce, but we get invaluable insight from Leslie and her team of student interns on a wide range of sustainability topics. We were fortunate enough to visit the farm last fall. Not only was it a great team-building exercise for our group in Residential Dining, but it also allowed our student videographers to create a wonderful point-of-view video to showcase our partnership.”
Adds Richard, “For us in Housing and Food Services, this relationship is about student engagement. We get so much by supporting the Student Farm—it goes way beyond the radishes and the Swiss chard. It’s about opportunities for our student employees to engage with students at the farm and vice versa. It’s about programs around educating our guests about the Student Farm. It’s about access to hyper-local, organically grown produce and knowing your food and knowing your farmer.”
Through a Penn State Strategic Plan seed grant, the Student Farm concept is expanding beyond University Park to Penn State Beaver and Penn State Behrend campuses, which have established student gardens and plan to sell produce to campus dining commons.