While campus dining centers serve far fewer meals in the summer, Turner Place’s kitchen keeps a brisk pace, capturing the flavors of fresh summer produce students will enjoy throughout the academic year. 

The bounty begins its journey to campus tables just eight miles away at Homefield Farm, a partnership between Dining Services and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “In summer, we’re growing and harvesting potatoes, corn, and tomatoes, and then in fall we’ll grow things like cabbage, collards, kale, and lettuce mixes,” says Shawn Jadrnicek, Homefield Farm’s manager.  

“Coordinating with Homefield Farm lets us complement other sources to increase fresh, local, organic produce in our menus,” says John Barrett, assistant director at Turner Place. This fresh infusion gives students more options in their diet and more choices in how their eating habits shape the landscape of food production. 

But as with any kitchen garden, the farm’s growing season overlaps only partially with when the food can be eaten. Preserving the flavors, textures, and colors of harvest calls on dining staff to process ingredients into a variety of soups, sauces, pizza toppings, or flash-frozen vegetables. 

The concept behind summer production started in 2014 with finding economies in Turner Place's meat supply. Executive Chef Senior Mark Moritz shared his experience as a resort chef practicing selective meat cutting to increase efficiency and sustainability in kitchen operations. With deft knife work, his team refines whole beef shoulder into tender premium flat iron steaks that will be served in 1872 Fire Grill.

Selective cutting reduces waste and saves upstream resources by getting more nutrition to the plate from fodder and fuel used to raise the beef. Barrett says good menu design brings further efficiencies: “We find ways for trimmings to complement the rest of the menu, like the beef tips used in Fire Grill’s beef and noodle dishes.” 

Chef Moritz takes pride as steward of flavor, food resources, and student dining budgets, noting that the dining center’s price for steaks has stayed nearly flat since 2014, a feat that has only been possible with his team’s custom meat fabrication.

Moritz says before the efficiencies were proven, there was hesitation around his scratch-made approach that even now is not common among university dining facilities, "but just because it hadn’t been done well, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. It's not easy, but we do it because it’s beneficial to everybody.” 

The benefits are abundant. “We use ninety percent of everything that we get from the farm,” says Moritz, noting that summer production continues “May to early August, and we probably won't stop processing tomatoes until maybe the first of September.”

“We just made 16,000 portions of tomato soup,” says Moritz, that will be organic, fresh, savory, and a third of the cost of prepared soups. “Our oven-roasted tomatoes are like candy. We’ll top pizzas with them, make roasted tomato sauce, even mix roasted garlic and make ciabatta bread. Earth Week, all our tomato basil soup and marinara sauce is from the farm.”  

Students harvest collards at Homefield Farm.
Students harvest collards at Homefield Farm. Photo by Darren Van Dyke for Virginia Tech.

Such volumes are challenging, says Moritz, and “without Southgate, none of this would happen,” referring to the commissary kitchen and storage facility for all campus dining centers. Southgate completes initial cleaning and delivers to Turner Place. After processing, Turner Place blast freezes produce to preserve high quality of flavor and texture, paying attention to what Moritz calls “small things that make a big difference. We buy our bags to fit the boxes, not the other way around.”

This level of attention to small details gives big sustainability gains. Barrett says that because of the bag sizing, “we can reuse cardboard produce boxes throughout processing, transport, and storage, keeping a huge volume out of the recycling stream for at least three years.”

Summer production at Turner Place sustains resources, flavors, and efficient workflow across the year. It also sustains and develops staff culinary skills. Moritz says culinary staff are “passionate about what they do and want to learn more.” Working on projects they would not be exposed to during fall or spring operations, says Moritz, “gives them an environment in which they can grow. It’s an opportunity they're taking advantage of, and they're doing a fantastic job. Everybody is winning.”

Everybody includes students working and learning at Homefield Farm and in dining centers, both in the kitchen and at the table. Jadrnicek says, “local farms bring the community together. People can see where their food is grown and be a part of that whole process.” 

Written by Shannon Atkins

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