Kale! Kale! The Gang’s All Here: Ohio State Greenhouse Grows Produce for Students

Picture of working in greenhouse

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Courtney George, an Ohio State University food science student, has a passion for good, local, health-building food and for making sure people can get it.

“I’m a huge fan of farm-to-table concepts,” said the sophomore from near Detroit. “I think they’re brilliant and the only real self-sustaining way for humans to feed themselves.”

Lesa Holford, corporate executive chef for Ohio State’s Student Life Dining Services department, loves cooking with fresh ingredients — especially ones she has helped grow herself.  

“It really connects you,” she said. “Plus you get a greater understanding of the process and yields. And it’s so fresh. It’s like a tomato you buy at the store versus one you grew in your yard. Inevitably, the one you grew just tastes better.”

Zia Ahmed, senior director of Student Life Dining Services, likes knowing the story behind a food, knowing the food’s benefits, and sharing the food and awareness with students.

“Food also tastes better when there’s a good story behind it,” he said.

Holford picks fresh kale in the greenhouse, used in such recipes as kale-bacon tarts. (Photo: K.D. Chamberlain, CFAES Communications.)

Together, all three are part of a new food-focused project — a “farm-to-table” system — on Ohio State’s Columbus campus: Dining Services and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences are teaming up to grow, right on the campus, a portion of the produce served to students.

In a greenhouse run by the college’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, staff plant experts and student volunteers such as George oversee hundreds of robust kale, basil and romaine lettuce plants, which grow in large pots on mesh-top tables in a single room in the greenhouse.


• Thanksgiving side dish: Ohio State chef’s recipe for kale and bacon tart

Farm-to-table systems aim to shorten the distance as much as possible between where a food is produced and where it’s consumed. They encourage both growing and eating food locally. Benefits include fresher food and — compared to similar food shipped from, say, half a continent away — often a smaller carbon footprint, which helps cut global warming emissions.

In this case, for example, Holford uses the basil in pesto for “grab-and-go” caprese sandwiches sold in several campus cafes, the romaine in Caesar salad platters served in student dining halls, the kale in such dishes as kale-bacon tarts.

George and other Ohio State student volunteers are responsible for regular watering of the plants. (Photo: K.D. Chamberlain, CFAES Communications.)

Ahmed said the seed of the idea came from ongoing collaborations and discussions between Student Life Dining Services and several teams within CFAES.

Dining Services already buys some of its meat — hams, roasts and more — from the college’s Department of Animal Sciences. And it buys some of its fresh fruits and vegetables, when available and in season, from the Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory, which also is part of the college.

“But we wanted more predictable quantities, and we started to think that maybe we could find a space to grow our own produce,” Holford said. “So we met with (Animal Sciences Chair) Henry Zerby and (CFAES Senior Associate Dean) Ron Hendrick and started chatting about spaces that might work.”

The conversation turned up an option — an unused room in Horticulture and Crop Science’s Howlett Hall greenhouses — and the project sprouted from there. Greenhouse growing experts Jim Vent, greenhouse coordinator with Horticulture and Crop Science, and Elaine Grassbaugh, a research technician in the department, joined the team. Student volunteers were recruited to learn about and help with the upkeep.

Elaine Grassbaugh, left, of Ohio State’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, helps provide greenhouse growing expertise for the project. (Photo: K.D. Chamberlain, CFAES Communications.)

“We recommended the size of containers, the soil-less media, and the crops and varieties that would be successful,” Grassbaugh said. “I instruct the student volunteers on the correct watering methods. I also check on the plants several times a week and contact Lesa when harvest is needed or when the basil needs to be pinched back to avoid flowering, which causes the basil to turn bitter.”

“They’ve taught us so much,” said Holford, who said she’s more than pleased with the fruits of the labor: a total harvest of more than 230 pounds of fresh greens and herbs in the three months since the first seeding.

“I put the basil in my car to deliver it to our kitchens,” she said, “and the aroma is unlike anything — just wonderful.”

A closeup of basil plants, one of three crops, along with kale and romaine lettuce, grown in the greenhouse. (Photo: iStock.)

George saw an email asking for student volunteers for the project and said she knew she had to help. “Any time I see an urban gardening-type operation, I want to be a part of it.”

She said her goal at Ohio State is to learn all she can about food production and the industry that surrounds it, then maybe spend a year working for a program like AgriCorps, AmeriCorps or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms before she starts graduate school.

Her major, food science, is in CFAES’s Department of Food Science and Technology.

“I’m most passionate about food access and food sustainability,” she said. “I believe many problems in the U.S. and in the world could be solved if everyone had proper education about and access to affordable, healthy, sustainable food.

“I think this project and many others like it are accomplishing a good step toward that goal.”

All the plants, such as these kale plants, grow in large plastic pots set on metal tables in the greenhouse. Said Holford: “I can’t think of anything more rewarding than the satisfaction of knowing that we planted the seed, watered it, and watched it grow, and that students participated in growing the food they’re consuming.” (Photo: K.D. Chamberlain, CFAES Communications.) 

Ahmed agrees. He said food is personal for people, and it’s no different for students.

“We should all be aware of what we put in our body, as it’s our most important asset,” he said. “Thus, it’s critical that production, preparation and operations related to food be done as locally as possible and by the people whose primary motivation is the well-being of our students.”

He said students at Ohio State, a land-grant university, should be proud to have such a project on campus.

“Everyone should be excited to know that we’re growing food to serve to our students while we teach students and conduct research for future generations,” he said. “One day it may lead to a significant amount of production coming out of our own backyard to feed our students.

“It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to grow our own food.”

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Kurt Knebusch


Lesa Holford, Student Life Dining Services

Zia Ahmed, Student Life Dining Services

Courtney George, sophomore, Food Science

Elaine Grassbaugh, Horticulture and Crop Science