Project Hoop House aims to close Vassar ‘food loop’

Since 2003, Campus Dining has focused on integrating local produce and products into food options available to the Vassar community. However, not until recently has there been an effort to connect students directly to the food production process. To address this gap in the production to consumption food cycle, members of the Campus Committee on Sustainability (CCS), Campus Dining Services and a group of students have joined together to form Project Hoop House. The initiative’s main aim is to install a greenhouse on campus that would be completely student-run. The program would give students the opportunity to learn about agriculture and small scale farming, as well as provide homegrown salad greens for the All Campus Dining Center.

“I think what the hoop house is going to do is give people an opportunity to take a look and question where their food comes from, and that’s a healthy thing,” explained Ken Oldehoff, the Director of Marketing and Sustainability for the Central Dining Facility. Despite Vassar’s location within the Hudson Valley hotbed of local and sustainable food yield, Oldehoff expressed his desire to link students even more intimately to the work and resources required to create something as simple as a salad of arugula and mustard greens.

David Orkin ’13, a member of Project Hoop House and co-leader of the Vassar Experimental Garden echoed this sentiment: “A hoop house would allow students to make a direct connection and realize that food is more than an object that appears at the deece. It takes long hours, careful planning and commitment to make it happen there.”

The hoop house would measure approximately thirty by ninety feet, and would enclose primarily salad greens. Orkin explained this strategic choice of vegetable, “They can be grown fairly easily, they are wintertime hardy, they’re tastiest in the wintertime, they don’t take up much space, you can produce a high volume, and they’re quick.”

Beginning in 2008, Aramark made a commitment to provide $3,000 per year for sustainability initiatives, but this year and next, that amount is going up to $6,000. In the past, this money has gone towards locally-sourced beef for the famous Wednesday chili in the Retreat. Now CCS and Campus Dining are looking for more long-term options.

“This is a very interesting opportunity to learn about large scale business management, ecological farming, horticulture and how we can take advantage of college resources to rework the way we live our lives,” said Orkin, adding, “I think it’s the first step towards something larger.”

One goal of the Campus Committee on Sustainability is to work towards a closed loop food system. Project Hoop House would keep the human resource of food production on site, it would eliminate produce transportation considerations and generally condense the production to consumption cycle within the collective community.

Just as important as the food production component of Project Hoop House is the potential for education. Alistair Hall ’11, who serves as the Assistant to Sustainability Activities for the Campus Committee on Sustainability explain this crucial student-led aspect. “Whether through field work, student employment or independent study, we want to get students learning hard skills in horticulture and food production,” said Hall.

Although a potential location for the Hoop House is still undecided, Oldehoff emphasized visibility as an integral part of the plan. “It would be great to have the hoop house in a prominent location, so as the tours go by, people can see what we have going on.” Orkin agreed with this idea, explaining, “Having it be really visible would indicate a commitment by the collete to making progress towards a more ecological way of obtaining food.”

In addition to gaining know-how when it comes to growing food, Oldehoff said student participants in The Hoop House project might cultivate a spirit of engagement and community consciousness that would follow them far after graduation from Vassar.

“My thought is that if can show students at Vassar that growing food on the small scale can be done, and then they become leaders in their communities or involved in their communities, they can spread this message there as well,” he said.

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