Ohio State Dining Services launched an initiative this fall to ensure that select produce prepared and served by campus dining halls will be locally grown, right on OSU soil.

“Food is a meaningful thing,” said Zia Ahmed, senior director of University Dining Services. “It’s a lot more meaningful because it’s grown in our own backyard.”

Howlett Greenhouse on OSU’s West Campus is set to be home to lettuce, kale, basil and other “lettuce-type” crops used for student consumption, said James Metzger, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science professor and chair. Produce will be planted, cared for and harvested by both volunteers and students within the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science as a collaborative effort between Dining Services and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“It isn’t something that just stops at the supermarket. This is the idea of being totally self-sufficient. People are going to see that they can make a contribution. People will get an understanding of what food production is about,” Metzger said.

Overall, the initiative costs less than $1,000 and the money was provided by Dining Services, Ahmed said.

This is the first time a specifically designed space on OSU’s campus will be dedicated to the growing and harvesting of some of the food students eat, Ahmed said.

Metzger said although the reality of space limitations might mean that the initiative could not reach all campus dining halls, OSU could still supply a significant amount of produce. The goal is to start small and track the potential for what can be grown and sustained at OSU, Metzger said.

“The more we can reduce the cycle time from the time it’s harvested to the time it makes it on the plate, it will, of course, taste better,” Ahmed said.

The use of the greenhouse space is vital to the sustainability of the partnership and for year-round production, but it might be trickier when it comes to appropriate planting temperature and fertilization, Metzger said.

“If you plant something in your garden, you kind of just let it grow but when doing it in a greenhouse, you want it to be just right,” Metzger said. “It takes a little more effort and a little more skill to grow things in the greenhouse versus in the field.”

Metzger said the produce will need to be tended to daily and throughout the summer months, which could present a problem when relying so heavily on a student workforce. 

“You need a lot of people when you plant.” Metzger said. “Students have to study and they go home so you need a lot of people that will spend a few days a week.”

Yet, the use of students enrolled in agricultural or food science courses as well as volunteers will significantly cut down the cost of production, Ahmed said.

“Seed doesn’t really cost much. Labor cost is really the main cost,” Ahmed said.

Growing crops on OSU soil could prove beneficial to student health, Metzger said.

“Some of these things (vegetables) are very nutritious that the American diet could use a little bit more of,” he said.

But some students are less worried about the benefits to their health and more about the damage to their wallets.

“I like that it gives students the opportunity to have experience in their major,” said Sarah Fitzpatrick, a third-year in neuroscience. “If it was going to increase the (food) prices I would want to know what the benefits would be because the prices are already pretty high.”

Still, some students support the initiative.

“It’s nice to know that you’re not getting food with crazy chemicals and preservatives. It’s probably more fresh,” said John Sparks, a first-year in science and technology exploration.

Metzger said the first crop of kale is set to be harvested in November.