|Rio Salado Gardening Instructor Josh Sundberg|
College cafeterias are not typically a first choice for a healthy, organic lunch. Luckily, there is nothing typical about Tempe-based Rio Salado College. With seasonal menus, locally-sourced ingredients and produce fresh from the college’s backyard garden, the Café at Rio has become a local lunchtime hotspot.
The secret to the Café’s success is its garden to table philosophy and the high quality organic produce that is grown less than a touchdown pass away from the kitchen.
Vegetables and herbs planted in the Garden at Rio include rosemary, basil, mint, sage, zucchini, eggplant, okra, broccoli, chiles and cantaloupe.
Rio Salado Gardening instructor Josh Sundberg uses the garden as a learning lab where students discover gardening practices like aquaponics, companion planting and trap crops.
One of the first things Sundberg teaches is a respect for bees.
“I invite bees in to the garden, and give them plenty of incentive to come,” Sundberg said. “We plant basil to use in the Café and to attract bees. Bees need flowers for their food supply, and I need food for the bees if I want my vegetables to pollinate.”
According to Sundberg, the Garden at Rio uses no fertilizer and doesn't require tilling.
“I really want people to reconnect with nature. Forests don’t need to be tilled or fertilized in order for plants to grow.” Sundberg said.
“The inspiration for the Garden at Rio is nature. In nature, you would never see just a field of corn. There is always diversity in what is growing,” Sundberg said. “We try to display that diversity in all the planting beds. Some beds have more than 30 different plants in them. “
Sundberg said he uses natural methods to control unwanted pests.
“We use mint in the Café for our flavored waters. In the garden, mint is planted next to jalapenos to keep insects occupied. I’d rather have them eating mint than my cash crops.” Sundberg said.
As for weed control, Sundberg said he doesn't believe in it.
There’s no such thing as a weed,” Sundberg said. “Weeds grow for a purpose – they nourish the soil. People consider purslane a weed, but we grow it in the garden. It has the highest Omega-3 content of all land-based plants, and is pretty tasty. It tastes like spinach meets citrus!”
According to Rio Salado’s Chef Ben Leach, the focus on sustainability and local agriculture is about more than just environmental concerns.
“We want to cultivate a zero-waste and ecologically-responsible food system,” Leach said, “but our methods also make good business sense. When we harvest our vegetables from the garden or buy them from a local farm, we don’t have to pay to preserve and transport them across the country. We’re also serving a higher quality, more flavorful meal that our customers can feel good about eating.”
This story can also be found in the Nov. 2 edition of the Tempe Republic.