At Peter Becker Communities senior living center in Pennsylvania, the house specialty Peter Becker salad is highlighted by microgreens grown literally a short walk from the dining room, in a dry storeroom just off the production kitchen.
A combination of lentils, dun peas and sunflowers, the site-grown microgreens were introduced by Josh Crandall, general manager of dining at Peter Becker for contract firm Cura Hospitality.
“When I arrived here in December of last year, I noticed our team was using some very expensive greens from a local produce company,” Crandall recalls. “I have an interest in gardening and sustainable agriculture and I had attended a workshop where I learned how to grow microgreens on a small scale indoors under lights. I quickly saw an opportunity based on the space that we had and the cost of what we were using, so we kind of headed down that path.”
He cites a number of advantages to the initiative, starting with cost.
“We were buying about $45 of these microgreens a week,” he says, “but we are able to grow the same amount for about $3.”
The seeds purchased are also all organic, as is the potting soil mix being used. After the greens are harvested, the leftover soil and roots are composted back into the system.
Another advantage is the fast maturation of the crops. “We can turn sunflower from seed into usable product in about six days,” Crandall says, “so even if we don’t quite do something right, maybe forget to water the greens, the rapid growth process means we could start over and do better the second time.”
The in-house cultivation program has also engaged the staff and residents, and even the larger community when it was displayed at a recent community health fair.
Initially, Crandall had a choice of growing microgreens or sprouts, which also mature quickly, but he chose the former because the food safety aspects are less complex.
“Sprouts are grown in water where there’s much greater propensity for bacterial growth because of the closed loop system with water,” Crandall explains.
By contrast, microgreens are grown in soil, he says, which poses far fewer hazards.
Lentil, dun pea and sunflower greens were chosen as the varieties to be cultivated because they grew the fastest, Crandall says. “We have had luck growing micro-lettuce, cilantro and some other herbs, but it’s a much slower process as it can take upwards of 28 days to get them to a size where we can use them.”
The room where the microgreens are cultivated didn’t have to be modified very much. A fan was added to keep air circulating properly and the lights are on a timer to ensure that the plants get the right amount of light (too much can damage them as much as too little).
“The only maintenance we need to do on a daily basis is watering them,” Crandall says. “They do use a large amount, more than you would think.” Each tray uses almost a gallon a day, he estimates, and the task has been incorporated into the daily routine in the kitchen.
Though it also includes some commercially produced ingredients, the Peter Becker salad was developed specifically to highlight the microgreens and is topped with a housemade vinaigrette made with honey harvested from three hives maintained at the community by a volunteer beekeeper. The honey is also sold in jars at the Peter Becker gift shop.
The Peter Becker salad proved so popular—it’s featured daily in the dining room and currently sells 30 to 40 a night—that production of the microgreens had to be upped significantly, one factor that spurred the concentration on the fastest growing varieties. Currently, the seedbeds produce up to eight trays a week, with a tray yielding somewhat over a pound of product.
The homegrown microgreens are also featured in modest quantities on the salad bars at two of the community’s three dining outlets, which include an informal café, a casual dining restaurant and a fine-dining restaurant open only for dinner.
A smoothie incorporating the microgreens was piloted at the community fair as well as at a recent onsite farmers’ market and may eventually be added to the café menu. The smoothies might also serve as an alternative to commercial liquid supplements as microgreens are full of high-impact nutrients.
In addition to the microgreens and honey produced on site, Crandall also cultivates some herbs in the Peter Becker Community Garden, and recently started a mushroom garden using oak logs recovered from a landscaper that have been treated with shiitake and oyster mushroom spores.
The Peter Becker community encompasses around 500 residents in different levels ranging from independent living to skilled nursing.