Good timing figures into the backstory of how the city of Columbus came to have the first indoor hydroponic farm at its convention center. Levy Restaurants was chosen as food-and-beverage provider at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in 2016, just as the center was undergoing an expansion and renovation which debuted earlier this year.
Levy had wanted there to be an on-location source for fresh produce for use in the center’s catering services, said Daniel Palawasta, general manager for Levy Restaurants at the Columbus convention center. It was important, he said, that the produce be grown in a location where visitors to the center could see it and know that it was there — not hidden away on the roof or in the back of the building.
Hydroponic farming offered a solution and, fortunately, Palawasta said, “there were construction crews around.” It took “about 30 seconds” to convince convention-center officials that installing a hydroponic farm behind glass across from the center’s new Discovery Café was a good idea, he said.
At the moment, the farm’s “crops” are chives, basil, mustard greens, cutting celery — a leafy variety of the vegetable — and red shiso, an Asian herb. Depending on the time of day, the herbs and vegetables are illuminated by blue, white, or red light, which mimic the sun’s ultraviolet light for 18 hours every day.
The farm’s annual yield is expected to be between 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of fresh vegetables and herbs, Palawasta said. He works with convention center clients months in advance to plan menus around herbs and vegetables grown by request — dishes have included roasted tomato gazpacho and cocktails made with locally produced stone-fruit vodka and garnished with fresh basil.
One question Palawasta often is asked is whether or not growing produce hydroponically at the center is a cost-saving move for Levy. Not really, Palawasta said — the small hydroponic farm can’t grow enough produce for an operation that often serves thousands of meals a day.
But it is a sustainable, renewable, and relatively easy way to grow high-quality produce, said Palawasta, who learned what he needed to know to become a hydroponic farmer in seven to eight months. In a convention-center setting, it’s more of an opportunity for the center’s chef to do something a little special, he said.
Hydroponic farming, however, is an economically viable and sustainable way for food to be grown commercially and by individuals, Palawasta said. ”I’m thinking of putting a small unit in my basement.”
The convention-center farm also illustrates the commitment that Levy Restaurants, which provides food-and-beverage services to numerous convention centers and event venues, has made to sustainability, Palawasta said. At the Greater Columbus Convention Center, any usable leftover food is donated to a local partner, Lifecare Alliance, which distributes to programs like Meals on Wheels. “They are our partners on an everyday basis,” Palawasta said, “whether we have 10 leftover box lunches or 2,000 pounds of food” to donate.
That leaves “wet waste” — leftover food that can’t be given away. Palawasta’s operation uses a waste dehydrator system that removes all the water from the food and from there, it is used as compost, he said. The goal is to be as close to zero waste as possible, Palawasta said. “Some days we might be at 99 or 92 percent, or 76 percent,” he said. “But the goal is always zero food waste.”