It’s not every day that chefs or students have the opportunity to sit down with the CEO of one of the largest urban greenhouses in the United States. That’s why Bon Appétit staff and members of Case Western Reserve University’s Student Sustainability Council were quite excited to host Mary Donnell of Green City Growers. The head of the 3.25- acre urban hydroponic greenhouse and worker-owned cooperative in Cleveland brought the greenhouse experience to Case Western Reserve University as a substitute for hosting a tour (prohibited due to food safety issues in the enclosed space).
Entering its second year of operation, Green City Growers is a Farm to Fork partner for many of Bon Appétit’s Cleveland area cafés, including Case Western, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Oberlin College.
Midwest Fellow Alyse Festenstein started off the event with an introduction to Green City Growers and Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program. Meanwhile Chef/Manager Michael Kroneker prepared delicious Thai chicken lettuce wraps with Green City Growers’ Bibb lettuce for the group. Then Mary took over the show, sharing the story behind the greens and herbs prepared in Bon Appétit’s campus cafés each week. Using photos and time-lapse videos of the building’s construction and operation phases, the group saw the $17 million project bloom into a working greenhouse filled with acres of lettuce and basil.
Although only 3 miles from campus, Mary said that Green City Growers can seem like a world away from the hum of campus life at Case Western. Located on an old brownfield site in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, the latest census results show that nearly 45 percent of the residents live in poverty. Green City Growers’ mission, and the mission of its larger parent organization, the Evergreen Cooperatives, is to change those numbers. By leveraging the purchasing power of Cleveland’s anchor institutions in education and medicine, Green City Growers currently employs 20 to 25 people from the community and provides living wages, job training, and profit sharing for all employees.
It’s not only a product with integrity, but also one filled with just-picked flavor and vibrant hue sometimes lacking during Cleveland’s cold winter months.
At capacity, the greenhouse can produce 3 million heads of lettuce per year — and with this volume comes logistical challenges. From maintaining plant health to training staff without much job experience, let alone greenhouse experience, Mary explained that it’s been a nonstop year of hard work—but that she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
During the conversation, Sous Chef Ben Wentz shared his experience behind the grill line in Leutner Café working with Green City Growers Bibb lettuce. It’s not only a product with integrity, but also one filled with just-picked flavor and vibrant hue sometimes lacking during Cleveland’s cold winter months. As he explained how beautiful it looks atop a local New Creation Farm burger and how students actually request it, he reminded everyone, “We eat with our eyes.”
The intimate meet-and-greet event demonstrated what is possible through strong Farm to Fork partnerships with local growers such as Mary and Green City Growers. Bon Appétit chefs get to source a delicious, high-quality product, and Green City Growers sprouts opportunities in a community where once there were few. The fresh salads served in the Cleveland cafés are visible reminders of the power of food to build stronger communities and a future where the grass is truly greener.