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BGSU brings food from local farms to campus tables

BOWLING GREEN: Cucumbers, green peppers, melons and sweet corn are among the locally grown produce Bowling Green State University served in campus dining centers last summer. Now the University is part of a pilot project to grow fresh vegetables locally during the winter.

How is that possible? The vegetables are grown in “hoop houses,” which are similar to greenhouses but use almost no energy or heat. Just last week Red Fire lettuce grown in a hoop house at Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse was delivered to the Bowling Greenery, a restaurant in the BGSU student union.
“We’re very excited that this technology is available in northwest Ohio,” said Amy Hoops, quality assurance and purchasing coordinator for University Dining Services. “This is a way to feed people in our area at a very low energy cost.”

“The hoop house is just four layers of plastic, with something like a hair dryer to circulate air between the layers, and it’s not warm inside like a greenhouse,” she explained. “The real key is situating it properly, maintaining the right humidity, preparing the soil and knowing what varieties will grow well in it.

“We’d love to find a place to use hoop house technology closer to campus,” she added.

Hoops, who grew up on a local farm, and BGSU Dining Services Director Gail Finan share a passion for bringing locally grown food to campus. “It’s been Gail’s goal since coming here as director,” Hoops said.

BGSU was invited to participate in the hoop house project by CIFT, which has also played a pivotal role in connecting the University to local farmers. Though that had been their goal, Finan and Hoops had had limited success until becoming involved with the organization. They had bought cucumbers and peppers from FFA students at Eastwood, but without a campus central receiving office, the process of each dining hall checking the produce for quality and the farmers’ making multiple stops on campus proved unworkable.

Then, through its Farm to Chef program, CIFT associate program director Rebecca Singer put the University administrators in touch with distributors Vince and Charlotte Zelenak of Vin Char Produce in
Bowling Green. That was the key to the kingdom of locally grown strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelon, tomatoes and more, Hoops said.

“They assure the quality and that the produce is clean and properly packed,” Hoops said. The tomatoes actually come from a hoop house at Riehm Farms in

“It’s worked out tremendously well,” said Charlotte Zelenak of the relationship. “Quality is the first thing for us. We’ve all been very satisfied.”

Singer said the process of developing connections with farmers and buyers and distributing locally grown food is quite complicated, and the BGSU relationship has proved valuable to CIFT as well.

“We had worked for some time to find a school that could purchase the quantity necessary to be worthwhile for a grower, and having a direct connection with BGSU has been very accommodating.

“It’s also a great resource for feedback on what things we need to change and improve upon,” she added. “We want to keep putting the focus on ‘local’ and we hope we can keep making that happen. We certainly appreciate all
Bowling Green is doing and all their insights.”

“CIFT is really doing their job, and I’m very happy to be working with them,” Hoops said. “We’ve been taking baby steps toward our goal and now we can see a lot more possibilities.”

CIFT is the food technology division of EISC Inc., a network of engineers and business advisors who work with small companies to apply research and technology solutions to help them better their market positions. One of CIFT’s services is to help local farmers find better ways to distribute their products.

Now that the lettuce crop has gone by, the Bittersweet Farms hoop house will be replanted for the next crop. “We expect fresh tomatoes by the end of May,” Hoops said. “And we’re looking forward to fresh asparagus this spring from our local farmers.”

The project is funded through a grant from the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT).





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