Each quarter we highlight a garden or farm on a college or corporate campuses we serve (catch our first story about the Carleton Student Organic Farm!). This series provides a space to recognize and celebrate the ways that campus farms and gardens help communities to get together and do so much more than just grow food. These places serve as living laboratories for education, measurable sustainability impacts, activism, health and wellness initiatives, and so much more. This quarter we’re excited to highlight the campus garden at the Capital Group campus in Irvine, CA, and its partnership with the on-site Bon Appétit team.
Nestled amongst the tidy office buildings of Capital Group’s Irvine campus sits a 1,350 square foot garden, just outside of the café where employees mingle with Bon Appétiters during mealtimes. The brainchild of Capital Group Site Services and Operations Specialist Audrey Satoutah, the garden was created in 2015 with the help of Emy Terusa, the founder of edible-garden design and build firm Tenfold Harvest. From humble beginnings the garden has grown, literally and figuratively, into a beloved fixture on the Capital Group Irvine campus as well as a key part of its on-site sustainability program.
Emy, who continues to manage the day-to-day operations of the garden, has a close relationship with the Bon Appétit at Capital Group team, which is led by General Manager Nicole Bell and Executive Chef Alberto Gonzalez. At the beginning of each growing season, Emy meets with Alberto to collaboratively determine which crops should be grown, and when. In the sunny Southern California climate, Emy has a long growing season to work with, and typically has the opportunity to grow multiple rounds of chemical-free crops in the same beds throughout the year, providing the café with a steady stream of fresh produce and herbs. In the spring and summer, the garden boasts eggplant, zucchini, tarragon, cilantro, and of course tomatoes – lots of tomatoes. “Having the garden is a luxury,” says Alberto. “I love to show off the food that we grow right here.” Alberto and the team make a point to highlight garden-grown delicacies like roasted beet salads and sautéed Swiss chard at the café’s dedicated Farm to Fork station. But growing food for use in the café is just the tip of the food sustainability iceberg at the Irvine campus. The garden is just one step in a closed-loop system that serves as an on-site model for corporate sustainability.
A Newfound Ally in the Compost Bin
A few years ago, Audrey and Emy fell down a food waste rabbit hole while researching how Capital Group’s Irvine campus could more sustainably reuse or compost food waste. The goal was to replace the campus’ food dehydrator, which simply reduced the volume of the food waste that was generated in the café. Instead, they sought to create a more efficient, closed-loop system in which food waste would be composted and used to grow food in the garden, preventing bountiful soil-enriching nutrients from leaving the campus. The solution? An on-site composting system that employs worms to do the heavy lifting of breaking down organic material, or vermicomposting for short. The team installed a series of 15×4-foot modular bins that now house mounds of food waste, organic material like cardboard, and, of course, lots of worms. Before COVID-19 impacted meal service at the café, the worms composted roughly 6,500 pounds of food waste per year, leaving behind over 500 pounds of rich worm castings that were applied to the garden’s soil.
In addition to sustainably producing food, the closed-loop system that the team created possesses lots of intangible benefits. A large window is all that separates the café from the garden, making the rows of vegetables and flowers a beautiful, omnipresent backdrop to employee meals and get-togethers over food. “It’s one of my favorite places on campus,” says Audrey. “We do tours and gardening workshops, and a lot of folks even end up taking professional headshots by the garden.” The vermicomposting system gets the Bon Appétit team involved, too. “Everyone, each member of the café staff, feels like they own a piece of the system,” says Audrey. “They get so protective of the worms!”
With the onset of COVID-19 and a significant reduction in the number of Capital Group staff at work each day, Emy and the Bon Appétit team adapted. “We went from full crop production to about half of what the café typically needs,” Emy says. “But we don’t see it as a reason why we should stop collaborating. We grow food as if people will return tomorrow.” Despite the struggles of COVID-19, Audrey, Emy, and the Bon Appétit team know that the system they’ve built will outlast the pandemic, and any other challenges that get thrown their way.