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Dining Farm: Students help grow food for dining halls

December 6, 2023 By Seth Kruger

In May, a plot of land in the Eagle Heights neighborhood on the west side of the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus was repurposed in the name of sustainability and education.

The Dining Farm, an initiative of University Housing, is already home to raised-bed crop production including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, salad greens, summer and winter squash, and root vegetables, just to name a few.

The produce serves not only as a stepping stone towards sustainability — including building permanent raised-bed soil — but also serves as an educational community experience.

The goal is to bring the locally-grown food to Badgers’ plates from Gordon Avenue Market to the Four Lakes Market.

To that end, University Dining & Culinary Services – Housing Division plays a key role in coordinating with the farm.

A woman in a green field of crops crouches down to pick eggplants.

Malorie Garbe picks vegetables. Photo by Joel Ninmann

Specific crop varieties and timelines are developed in collaboration with chefs to best utilize seasonal Wisconsin produce creatively in menus throughout the academic year,” said Malorie Garbe, sustainability coordinator for University Housing. “Chefs work on the farm, experiment with the produce and consult on the most flavorful or versatile varieties to offer students the freshest produce in their campus dining experience.”

Students in the UW–Madison GreenHouse Learning Community in Leopold Residence Hall and other volunteers help grow the food.

“We want to bring that place-based food to the forefront of students’ minds in the dining halls, thinking about where their food is coming from and how it was grown,” says sophomore Megan Holland, a member of the Greenhouse Learning Community who’s done work at the farm. “Hopefully, it will make people think more about the other food they’re eating, too.”

Farm Manager Malachi Persche plans and implements the growing systems and crop harvest distributions to provide fresh, locally grown produce in the UW–Madison dining halls. Pershe, who’s been at the Eagle Heights community gardens since he graduated in 2018, has experience in urban agriculture and a bachelor’s degree in soil sciences from UW–Madison. 

“I’m on the ground day-to-day, but I also liaison between chefs and community partners. So I wear many hats on the land,” he says. “I also hold open volunteer days where anyone is welcome to drop by. It’s mostly geared towards students, and we also have specific classes that come out to the farm,” he adds.

Persche works closely with the GreenHouse Learning Community to tie student participation to crop production for the dining halls.

A man in a greenhouse leans into a tall, vining tomato plant to pick ripe tomatoes.

Farm Manager Malachi Persche picks some vegetables. Photo by Lauren Graves/UW–Madison

“Malachi guided us in every step. I feel like I’ve only seen a little bit of it, but being here for upcoming years will be cool to see the upscaling of the operation,” Holland says.

Upscaling is certainly in Persche’s plans for the farm, too.

“Stacking farm activities with community involvement is something that I want to be mindful of going forward,” he says. “And in terms of infrastructure, I try to create things that somebody could use in their own backyard.”

Plans include being highly involved with the university’s dining hall menus.

“We’re working toward having featured menu items. Then students can see that their food is grown on campus by the UW–Madison Dining and Culinary Services Farm,” Persche says. “We’re also working toward fresh snacking food available from the dining farm at Flamingo Run locations, too. Then we can encourage people to see the plants being grown just a mile from campus in Eagle Heights.”

Already, some of the produce has made its way to the storefronts of the Dining Markets and Flamingo Run convenience stores, Garbe says. 

“Students can look for the Dining Farm logo on menus to see that produce is grown by students and staff, just a mile from campus in Eagle Heights,” she adds.

As the Dining Farm food begins to grow, Holland knows that these early beginnings for the program will prove successful in the coming years.

“We’re looking at potentially putting together a seasonal suggestions menu based on the different Wisconsin seasons throughout the year,” Holland says. “We hope it’ll make the idea of eating seasonal produce come full circle because as a college student, eating in the dining halls, you don’t always have a huge say in what you eat, where it came from and how it was produced,” she adds.