‘We’re getting a product from three miles away’

‘We’re getting a product from three miles away’; Hydroponic lettuce from Wellspring Harvest promoted at Western New England University, Springfield College, Elms

SPRINGFIELD — It’s all well and good that the romaine lettuce in the chicken Caesar salads served Thursday at Western New England University was fresh, grown locally in the middle of winter, by workers who have a chance to become part owners of the hydroponic growing company.

But how did it taste?

Good.

That was the verdict among students and visitors at the launch of the “Greenhouse Grown” program. The kickoff Thursday involved media taste-testers and a survey handed out to students after they’d gotten a chance to grab a salad with barbecued chicken strips and house-made croutons. Soon students at Springfield College and Elms College in Chicopee will get surveys as well.

It’s the result of a $250,000 two-year grant from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation’s New England Food Vision Prize. The initiative promotes produce from Wellspring Harvest in the Indian Orchard section of Springfield to students through Aramark, which runs dining centers at all three colleges.

Some of the money will go to expanding Wellspring Harvest so it can grow herbs, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and even strawberries, said Fred Rose, co-director of Wellspring Cooperative Corp. The idea is to promote healthy eating with local foods, especially if those foods are grown in greenhouses so they’re available out of season.

Wellspring Harvest’s year-and-a-half old facility is the largest urban greenhouse in New England. With a quarter-acre under cover, Wellspring can grow 20,000 heads of lettuce a month.

Rose said Wellspring is now only growing at half capacity, 10,000 heads a month, as it builds a customer base.

The lettuce never touches soil as it grows, instead feeding off nutrient-rich water in a clean environment. The lettuce heads, which grow for seven weeks, are only a day or so old when they arrive in college kitchens.

“We’re getting product from three miles away,” said Joel Weingart, executive chef for Aramark at Western New England University.

He said that means the lettuce is fresher, it keeps better in his coolers so it’s ready when he needs it, and he doesn’t have to throw away any lettuce when he gets a shipment.

“If it’s coming in from Arizona or California, there is a lot of product I can’t use,” he said. “Because it’s been picked weeks ago and it’s traveled by truck.”

He said Wellspring Harvest lettuce is more tender because it’s grown inside.

Rose said Wellspring Harvest lettuce is available now at River Valley Co-op in Northampton, Whole Foods in Hadley, Randall’s Farm in Ludlow and Atkins Farm in Amherst. It’s also available at Big Y in Amherst, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Southampton, South Hadley, West Springfield, Wilbraham, both Westfield locations and at the St. James, Cooley Street and Fresh Acres locations in Springfield.

Wellspring Harvest also supplies institutions including Mercy Medical Center and Mount Holyoke College. The “Greenhouse Grown” program doesn’t include Mount Holyoke because Aramark doesn’t do the food service at there.

Seven workers are employed now at Wellspring Harvest’s greenhouse, Rose said. Besides learning skills, they are all eligible to become part owners of the cooperative after one year.

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