The University of Montana (UM) Dining Garden internship offers a behind-the-scenes look at the University of Montana dining hall food production process. Sounds exciting, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out in the Food Zoo kitchen all day and watch the chefs cook… Luckily, the garden internship allows for plenty of work in the greenhouse, the two gardens on campus, and the aquaponics system.
The UM Dining Garden program is an affiliate of the Farm to College program. The Farm to College program works closely with the UM Dining Services to source food from local farmers and ranchers. The opportunity to provide organic, local, and sustainably harvested food is a rarity in the realm of mass food production. The UM Dining Services leads the nation with their environmentally and local-conscious food vendors. The garden manager, Natasha Hegmann recently attended the national Farm to Cafeteria Conference and returned especially proud of the University of Montana and the progress in sustainable food sourcing compared to other universities at the conference. She commented that our gardens, food vendors, and our relationship with the supervisors in the dining department far exceed other universities.
As an intern, my tasks include: harvesting, seeding, and cleaning microgreens from the aquaponics system every week, planting and transplanting vegetables for the spring/summer crops, attending the weekly UM Dining Service meetings, garden maintenance, organizing an event for Earth Week, and composting coffee grounds from The Market and coco coir from the weekly harvest. There were aspects of this internship that were unlike anything I have done before. I have had three years of experience working in a plant nursery while I was in high school so; I was familiar with planting, transplanting, and garden care. But, providing crops for chefs and observing the food purchasing process (especially on that large of a scale) was all new to me.
Because of the short growing season in Western Montana, most of the fruits and vegetables from the greenhouse and the gardens are ready for harvest during the summer time so, Food Zoo partons do not see the bulk of the harvest during the school year. However, the aquaponics system allows mircogreens (radish shoots), to be grown year-round. An aquaponics system is a combination of aquaculture (farmed fish, i.e. tilapia) and hydroponics (plants grown in medium other than soil, i.e. radish shoots grown in coco coir). Waste from the tilapia supplies nutrients for the microgreens. We harvest about 10 lbs of microgreens every week and those microgreens are put in the salad bar line and offered as an option every day in the Food Zoo.
Attending the UM Dining Service meetings and observing the conversations about local foods was a real eye opener for me. Sourcing local food requires a dedicated working relationship between the supplier and the buyer. Every week, the discussion was: what is in season, and what is not in season? Which cut of beef can we use? How can we utilize more cuts to make orders easier for the rancher? The chefs and administrators in the dining department work incredibly hard and have personal relationships with local food suppliers to eat locally, seasonally, and provide the same opportunity for the students to do so as well. It was encouraging to see how receptive the professionals in the Dining Service program were to student suggestions and student group campaigns geared toward eating and sourcing locally.
My favorite part of interning with the Gardens is learning of the SOMAT machine. The SOMAT machine dehydrates all of the food waste from the Food Zoo into a confined, sterile pulp. Food waste matter is reduced by 93 percent. A truckload of waste fits in our 5 gallon green compost bucket! We use the SOMAT in our compost on campus. This is waste that would have otherwise been hauled off by the truckload to a landfill. Instead, we use it to regenerate and provide growing matter for our garden. Because of this machine, the Food Zoo does not produce any food waste.
This spring semester was geared toward planning events for a big Earth Week (April 21-25th) celebration. We kicked off Earth week by giving out yellow onion starts at the Sustainaganza event in the UC. The next day, two interns, Lizzie and Ashley, gave lectures on native pollinators of Montana and how to grow mushrooms in a greenhouse. On Wednesday, we had our Bike Blender on the oval. This mechanism is a special blender designed to rotate as the back bike wheel rotates. One spin around the oval and you have made yourself a smoothie! Our final event was the van painting party (which was my project). We have had a lot of comments in the suggestion box asking if we compost or urging us to compost. So, in an effort to spread the word of our composting, I made a design to paint our compost van. We send a lot of our compost to the PEAS farm as we do not yet have the facilities to accommodate all of the coffee grounds from The Market and the SOMAT from the Food Zoo, thus, we need the van for transport. Inclement weather has staggered our painting days but, we have one side done and it looks great!
The UM Dining Gardens internship has provided me with great insight as a how-to implement sustainable food practices on a large scale. These relationships and practices can be applied to the Missoula public schools, hospitals, restaurants and other large facilities to significantly reduce waste and utilize local food options. Often times, the organic or local option is immediately dismissed as being too expensive or less convenient than bulk suppliers, but the UM Dining Service is proof that quality outweighed quantity and it is an achievable and rewarding process.
I am elated that the University of Montana offers the opportunity to receive credit for internship hours. I have completed two credit-eligible internships and have learned more about applicable field skills, communicative skills, hard labor, organizing people/events/paper work, and networking than I have in all of my college courses in the classroom. An internship allowed me to network in my field and community which was an immense benefit to me because I work 21-30 hours a week and find that I do not have the time outside of the classroom to attend as many community events as I would like but, receiving credit for the internship, and therefore, making it a part of my school schedule, gave my position credibility and allowed me privileges that I would not have had as a volunteer. With my two internships, I have worked with and alongside people of power within the Missoula community and my field, and I believe my employability increased significantly.