Hyper-Local Produce Pilot Growing Strong

Published January 2, 2019

Twenty tall, white towers line the seating area outside the Nugget Grill & Pub, with leafy greens sprouting from them. The vertical garden introduced to campus last semester functions as more than just a piece of decor. The towers are home to a variety of produce, such as lettuce, spinach, cucumbers and kale, which are harvested every few weeks and then served at the Chartroom restaurant on campus.

General manager and CEO for the Forty-Niner Shops Don Penrod said that he always wanted to grow produce on campus, an idea that stems from growing up on a farm. His wish was fulfilled when the founder of Lettuce Grow, a Long Beach State alumnus reached out to himto see if the Forty-Niner Shops would be willing to enter a partnership to grow hyper-local produce.

Kale growing in tower

Lettuce Grow is a company that specializes in fresh, sustainable food production. The company works with other college campuses such as the University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles, and San Diego State University.

The company’s founder, Caleb Wood, graduated from CSULB in 2016 with a bachelor’s in human geography. As part of the partnership, the Forty-Niner Shops paid for the towers and for members of Lettuce Grow to maintain them.

“We just want to get people thinking about where their food comes from again,” Wood said. “Many families had gardens before the invention of refrigeration systems, it was the norm, somewhere we lost touch with where that head of lettuce or tomato even came from,” Wood said.  

The tower installation is still in its pilot phase which is expected to run for at least a year.

Presently, the towers aren’t producing enough vegetables to provide for the whole salad bar at the Chartroom. According to Penrod, the goal is to eventually grow enough vegetables to provide some produce for the residence halls, campus food pantry and the Isabel Patterson Child Development Center.

The plants are harvested on a rotating basis. Instead of harvesting all 20 towers at the same time, five out of the 20 towers are harvested and re-planted weekly.

When it’s time for the plants to be harvested, employees from Lettuce Grow come to campus to pull out the fully grown vegetables and replace them with baby or “pre-started” plants. By starting with a young plant rather than a seed, the maturation process is reduced by about four to six weeks.

“We haven’t used any chemicals,” Penrod said. “We just find a bug and we pick them off and get rid of them. Because they’re pre-started, and they’ve optimized the nutritional content in the water, the plants grow faster than any plant I’ve ever seen.”

According to Penrod, using Lettuce Grow is more environmentally sustainable than purchasing produce from suppliers because the towers use about 90 percent less water than traditional gardening and don’t produce the abundance of vehicle emissions that come with transporting food. However, growing local produce is not yet economically sustainable. The vertical gardens are not currently saving the Forty-Niner Shops any money.

“We’re doing kind of a long term experiment to help Lettuce Grow become more efficient and to help us control pricing over time,” Penrod said. “The idea is that if we can find an economical solution, we would expand the program greatly to provide more locally grown vegetables from right here on our campus.”

As someone with gardening experience, Penrod said that he can’t taste a difference in flavor when eating the hyper-local produce, but he can definitely taste a difference in texture and quality.

“When we were buying kale through our normal channels, when we would serve it, it was very fibrous. It was almost like eating grass,” Penrod said. “But when you pick this kale, it’s fresh, it’s not fibrous, it tastes just like lettuce, it’s soft, kind of juicy, it’s easy to chew and it has a whole different feel in your mouth.”

towers with nugget in background
The Forty-Niner Shops and Lettuce Grow will spend this upcoming year monitoring the program to see how it can be improved. While the pilot phase is going on, Penrod said there are plans to use the bare plot of land by the Nugget Grill & Pub for traditional gardening. The vision is to grow crops like green beans and peas, as well as black and yellow edible flowers.

Preparation for the new garden is already underway. According to Penrod, the garden should be finished in the next few months.


Penrod said that a significant number of people mentioned that they wanted to see more urban gardens and vegetarian food options on campus during the Imagine Beach 2030 forum. He thinks that the pilot program with Lettuce Grow fits in with what the campus community wants.


“I think we just have to figure out how to make it work,” Penrod said.