Published on 08/28/08

UGA grows organic food and serves it up

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

The University of Georgia does more than just teach students how to grow organic food. It serves it up, too.

Each Friday, fruits and vegetables grown at UGA’s organic teaching farm in Athens, Ga., are plated up and spotlighted at the Savannah Room, a restaurant at the UGA Center for Continuing Education Conference Center and Hotel. The sustainable food is grown using methods that are environmentally friendly, community-centered and profitable for farms.

Chef Sam Lorenson started adding sustainable items to his Friday menu at the Georgia Center in January. He had to truck in fruits and vegetables from Atlanta until he started to get the food from the UGA farm in May.

“Whatever they grow, I’m going to incorporate,” he said.

Every Wednesday, Lorenson calls up Robert Tate, who manages the farm for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He then plans his sustainable entrée around whatever the farm has available. It could be 10 pounds of baby carrots, 5 pounds of lemon cucumbers or 5 pounds of baby eggplant. Lorenson gets his chicken, shrimp and fish from other sources.

Besides that one entrée, the rest of the Savannah Room menu stays the same.

“We take him our organic produce every Thursday morning,” Tate said. “Chef Sam prepares the fare, and they usually sell out every Friday.”

On a recent Friday, the sustainable menu option included baby carrots, squash, zucchini and sweet onions topped with trout. The next week it was grilled Springer Mountain chicken and Wild Georgia Shrimp on a bed of baby greens, lemon cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and baby carrots.

The Georgia Center pays comparable wholesale prices for the organic produce, Tate said. The money is used to pay for student labor and supplies on the farm. He calls the partnership with the Georgia Center a good example of being sustainable.

“It’s a way to teach students to grow organically and have an actual market structure so they’re not just growing vegetables to be turned into the ground,” Tate said.

A UGA certificate in organic agriculture started in 2007 with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program has 25 students, conventional and organic greenhouses, a packing shed, a walk-in cooler and two student employees.

“We’ve worked hard this past year to get this off the ground,” Tate said. “We’re trying to show that Georgia can grow its own organic food as opposed to it coming mostly from the West Coast.”

Students in the organic agricultural systems class this spring planted spring beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, head lettuce, salad mix and leeks. All made their way onto plates at the Savannah Room.

Over the summer, Tate, his student workers and Athens-area Master Gardeners grew Asian and Italian eggplant, cucumbers, strawberries, scallions, basil, flowers, peppers and tomatoes.

“It’s fun,” said Greg Cousins, a student worker on the farm. “I’m learning a lot, and I’m helping the program grow.”

Cousins’ major is geography, but he hopes to get a master’s degree in horticulture after graduating this fall.

Back in the Savannah Room, Lorenson says he’s in a win-win-win situation.

“My guests win because I feel like I serve good, healthy food and educate them,” he said. “The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences wins because it’s an encouragement to students that they could make money growing organically. And I win because I gain a more knowledgeable patron.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.