Adapting “Good Agricultural Practices” to Garden to Cafeteria Programs

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At Grow Your Lunch, we care about food systems change. We envision food systems in which people buy from local food producers, and on-site edible gardens supply supplemental produce to cafes, cafeterias, restaurants and home kitchens.

In order for this to work, however, those of us charged with making sure these gardens are successful have to learn an awful lot, specifically regarding food safety and Good Agricultural Practices (“GAPs”). In order to provide food that is safe, reliable and delicious, our movement needs to professionalize itself. And fortunately this is happening, little by little. In cities around the US, from Ventura to Chicago, Detroit to Denver, Atlanta to Mountain View, educational gardens are taking the necessary steps to becoming approved food sources.

So what are GAPs?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, GAPs are:

“practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and nonfood agricultural products”

And why do GAPs matter in garden to cafeteria programs?

First and foremost, using GAPs minimizes the risk of food borne illness. Following GAPs can also increase the likelihood of administrative “buy-in” for piloting garden to cafeteria programs.  Following GAPs can help minimize potential for liability issues for third party organizations operating gardens on private and public property. Following GAPs also increases the overall professionalism of your garden program and makes it more educational as an example of industry standards.

GAPs: Six Primary Areas of Consideration

There are six primary categories of consideration for GAPs in school gardens: Water, Soils, Land Use and Animal Access, Tools Equipment and Storage, Employee and Volunteer Training, and Record Keeping.

I. Water

First of all you need to know where your water is coming from. Is it stored or coming directly from the source? If you’re using municipal water, the city government is responsible for testing water but it is always recommended to conduct a water test “in-house” for potential contaminants once a year. Always record and date your water test results. Stored rainwater should generally not be used to irrigate vegetable crops unless special steps are being taken to ensure it is not contaminated. Any water that comes into contact with food post-harvest must be 100% potable.


II. Soils

You must test your soil at least once a year. If you’re growing in the ground, test for chemical and/or heavy metal contamination (always remember to date and record results). Use Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)–certified materials for building and filling raised beds. If you plan to use manure, first check to see if it’s OK to use manure in your county. If it is, observe 90-120 days to harvest rule for application on fruit crops and vegetables, respectively, in accordance with USDA organic standards. If you plan to use compost made on site, first check to see if it’s OK to use compost made on site in your city and county. If it is allowed, make sure your compost meets USDA organic standards for heating and aeration. If using your own compost is not allowed, use an OMRI-certified compost product. Vermicompost is normally OK, but it’s always worth checking local regulations. If you use other amendments and sprays, always use as recommended on the package label and in accordance with soil test data. If using a sprayer, be sure it is cleaned and dried thoroughly before storage. A “Soil Amendment Application” log should be kept for all soils and soil amendment applications, documenting the following: date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.


III. Land Use and Animal Access

First, learn the history of your site: Is there a history of flooding or other potential for contamination at your site? Familiarize yourself with adjacent land use: What’s happening upstream/upwind? Can buffers, setbacks and/or windbreaks minimize impact of adjacent activities? Domestic and wild animals should be kept out of active growing areas at all times: Physical barriers such as fences, raised beds and hoops with screen or row covers can mitigate animal intrusion. Keep a “Rare Occurrence Log” to document incidents of animal intrusion or potential contamination and what was done about it (food safety is all about due diligence and traceability, so the better your records are the safer you and the food you grow will be).


IV. Tools, Equipment and Storage

If  your tools, surfaces and containers come into contact with food postharvest, they must be cleaned/sanitized at an appropriate frequency based on 1.) How dirty each gets, 2.) How frequently it is used, and 3.) The level of food contamination risk associated with the tool/surface or container in question. This is decided at each site. Use separate containers for temporary storage of clean and dirty tools and equipment (while in active use). Post-cleaning, tools and equipment must be stored off the ground and kept away from animals and other contaminants. A “Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log” must be kept, documenting the name of tool/equipment item cleaned, date cleaned, by whom, types of cleaning products and procedures used.


V. Employee and Volunteer Training

The most important training for employees and volunteers is personal hygiene. Any person leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should undergo personal hygiene training, which must include hand-washing procedures and protocols for identifying sickness, allergies, and dealing with emergencies (injury, bleeding), etc. Anyone leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should also undergo GAPs training and should be able to confidently lead groups through approved harvesting and post-harvest handling protocols and logistics associated with your program.


VI. Record Keeping

The following records should be kept for your garden to cafe, cafeteria or restaurant program:

  1. Soil Testing Data
  2. Water Testing Data
  3. Applications/Inputs: All manure, compost, organic amendment, sprays (include date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.)
  4. Planting: Date, crop, variety, plant or seed source, bed/block name or number, quantity planted, success rate, etc.
  5. Harvesting: Date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver. All produce delivered must also be labeled with the harvest date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver, quantity of product and the crop/variety of the product. Adding a harvest # or code can help with traceability in large programs.
  6. Rare Occurrence Log: Animal intrusion, suspected contamination of any kind and “corrective action” taken
  7. Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log
  8. Employee and/or Volunteer Training Records
  9. Annual Self-Audit/Traceability Records

Grow Your Lunch is here to help you make your garden to cafeteria program a success. We can facilitate the development of a successful garden to cafe, restaurant or cafeteria program by providing you with the following resources:

    1. A customized Planting and Harvesting Calendar and Crop Plan
    2. A Garden to Cafeteria Protocols Manual, customized to meet the specific public health and food safety regulations of your city and county
    3. Professional Development Workshops for employees and volunteers managing your program
    4. Tools and Strategies for using garden produce without a prep kitchen facility
    5. Program Marketing Strategy to build buy-in and participation in your program

Plant Part Tacos


Grow Your Lunch, LLC has provided this information as completely and accurately as possible, however, we accept no legal responsibility whatsoever for incorrect, insufficient or inadequate food safety risk management, or for any errors or omissions in the information provided herein.

Read this article on the Edible Schoolyard blog.


USDA Food Safety Tips for School Gardens

CDFA Small Farm Food Safety Guidelines

Community Alliance with Family Farmers (“CAFF”), Food Safety and Good Agricultural Practices Resources

Family Farmed “Eat What You Grow” Manual Created with Chicago Public Schools

Local University Cooperative Ag. Extensions

Harvesting the Bounty

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It is officially summer time in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that harvest season is upon us. Harvesting is one of the most rewarding aspects of edible gardening, but it takes practice to do it well. Each plant in the garden has particular harvesting needs. As British horticulturalist Alan Chadwick told his gardening disciples, “in general, everything is specific.”

If done well, harvesting helps our garden plants continue to produce delicious food for us throughout the growing season. In general the main principle is to encourage new growth while harvesting.

Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash are easily identified when they are ripe due to their size and color, but ripeness is not always so easy to determine with many other crops.


Summer Harvest Basket

Some plants are “cut and come again” crops and many are not. A “cut and come again” crop is a plant that you can cut back fairly low down (above the point where their first true leaves branch out) and it will still produce new leaves from the root system and the central core of the plant.

Thyme, oregano, cilantro, dill, parsley and arugula are great examples of crops that can be cut hard and will grow back – all of these can be cut with a knife, hand shears or pinched by hand – almost to the ground – and will still grow back with great vigor. Just try it! You won’t kill the plant!

A lettuce plant is not a “cut and come again” crop and should be harvested as a whole head for optimal production. It will never grow new leaves if you cut it back. Some gardeners like to harvest the outermost leaves off of many different lettuce plants for their salad. We find this a bit tedious and prefer to plant new lettuce seedlings frequently so that we always have whole heads ready for harvest, throughout the growing season.

Lettuce 1

 Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Leafy Greens such as kale, collards, and chard should have their lowest leaves picked first so that the middle of the plant can continue to produce new leaves. In general, breaking off the lower leaves at the main stem by hand with your thumb is better for the plant than cutting the leaves, as cutting will leave a wound that does not heal as well and can become a vector for disease.


Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Root vegetables such as beets, carrots and radishes can be harvested when the top of their taproot is visible above soil level and the plant looks large enough to pick.

Tree fruit such as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines can be harvested when they fall into your palm with a ¼ turn of the stem. Subtropical fruit such as citrus and avocados have a wider harvest window and can be picked or cut from the branch when they have attained appropriate size and color, which depends on the specific variety of each crop.

For more edible gardening tips, download free PDF or purchase a hard copy of our Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food handbook and check out out the Grow Your Lunch Vimeo channel!

Happy Summer Northern gardeners!


The Art of Weeding

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Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Planting with Lunar and Solar Cycles

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Since the dawn of civilization, farmers and gardeners have been planting their crops in tandem with solar and lunar cycles.

Earth's Moon Phases

Based on solar and lunar calendars for the northern hemisphere in 2016, we’ve determined that the days between the first quarter moon phase (March 16) and full moon (March 23), closest to the equinox (March 20), will provide for the fastest germination and optimal production of our annual herbs, flowers and vegetables.

With this seasonal positioning in mind, we will be planting on Country Flat Farm on March 20.  If you’d like to join us for a propagation workshop that day, please register before March 18.

Planting with Lunar Cycles

Lunar planting theories vary as widely as the farmers and gardeners who ascribe to them.  Some claim that seeds will sprout best if planted during the new moon phase. Others claim that planting near a full moon is best. Though the exact timing of when to plant in the lunar cycle and the actual impact of the moon on crop production is debated, the gravitational pull from the moon on each water molecule on Earth – in the oceans (think tides), rivers, lakes and streams, even the water in our bodies and the water within sprouting seeds – does vary throughout the roughly 29-day lunar cycle. Based on tidal models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), our theory is that if there is an optimal time to plant seeds throughout the lunar month, it is when the moon is approaching it’s full and new phases.

Here’s why:

Between the first quarter and full moon and between the third quarter and new moon phases, each molecule of water on our planet is quite literally “pulled” toward the moon with increasing gravitational tug each day, peaking with spring tides (which occur twice per lunar month when solar and lunar tides are aligned), encouraging each sprouting seed (filled with water) to reach the surface more quickly:

Spring Tides 2Spring Tides 1


After the full or new moon phase, the tidal highs and lows decrease for a few days, reaching lowest levels on the first and third quarter, with the corresponding neap tides (which also occur twice per lunar month), as the sun and moon pull at the Earth’s water at a 90 degree angle:

Neap Tides 2 Neap Tides1


Optimal transplanting times are during the days between the full moon and third quarter and the new moon and first quarter (when tides move from spring to neap), as the gravitational pull of the moon upon each molecule of water on the planet decreases each day until the third quarter or first quarter. The theory goes that as the gravitational pull from the moon decreases, roots grow away from the gravitational pull of the sun and moon (deeper into the ground) more easily.

Planting with Solar Cycles

Planting on or near the spring equinox (late March in the northern hemisphere, late September in the south) is another technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. This relevance of this method is also debated, yet it too has some scientific clout: annual plants that sprout on or around the spring equinox will receive an increasing amount of light each day for three months, allowing them to grow large, healthy leaves and deep, prosperous roots. After the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (late June in the northern hemisphere, late December in the south), plants react to decreasing amounts of sunlight and begin to produce flowers, fruits and seeds, which we harvest in the late summer and early fall, near the autumnal equinox (late September in the northern hemisphere, late March in the south).

Though there’s never a guarantee with gardening and farming, we figure it can’t hurt to plant in accordance with these cycles as best we can.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – National Ocean Service (Tides and Water Levels)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Elliptical Orbit Models)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Lunar Day)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Spring and Neap Tide Models)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration – Earth’s Moon: Galleries


The Benefits of Gardening for the Elderly: Lessons from Havana, Cuba

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As my own research in Havana, Cuba in 2003 found, elderly people who work in gardens and on farms experience myriad health benefits, some direct and some indirect.

Being physically active, mentally stimulated and having increased access to fresh food are direct health benefits. Having a sense of place or belonging in one’s community, feeling connected to one’s family history and cultural heritage, and feeling a sense of accomplishment are more indirect benefits to participating in gardening activities.

Over a four-month period in 2003, I visited more than 15 urban farms and gardens throughout Havana and interviewed dozens of retirees through the University of Havana’s Faculty of Social Sciences. Here are a few excerpts from the study:



Hilda’s Garden

I visited Hilda’s garden on a balmy Caribbean afternoon.  With the help of her friends and neighbors, she had transformed her concrete-covered, garbage-littered, urban Old Havana backyard into a thriving Garden of Eden. Her 20x30ft plot boasted 20 species of vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs as well 10 different types of fruit trees. As we chatted, three of her neighbors came by and asked for fresh herbs to use in their evening meals. A spry and vibrant septuagenarian, she cited eating fresh fruits and vegetables and leading an active life to her health and vitality. Although she did not mention it, surely having something to offer her neighbors gave her additional satisfaction and a feeling of importance in her community.  It might not be everyone’s idea of retirement, but it seemed to be working pretty well for her.

On the Farm with Arnoldo

At age 79, Arnoldo was as fit as someone in their 50’s. At age 60, he was given early retirement by the Cuban government due to a chronic back condition. He took care of his grandkids, drank rum and played dominoes. Then he became terribly bored. A friend told him about a garden where he worked and proposed that Arnoldo come along one day. When I spoke to Arnoldo, he was weeding a 100ft-long bed of lettuce. He was the manager of one of urban Havana’s largest urban farms called La Sazon (over 2 acres of row crops on an old parking lot).  His back problem had vanished and he was preaching the gardening gospel: “not only do I get paid in addition to my retirement pension, but I also get to bring healthy food home to my family (for free), and I feel better than I have in years.” His concluding remarks were something to the effect of, “sitting down, you accomplish nothing.”

A Day at Casa Santovenia

I visited Casa Santovenia during my research as well. Santovenia is a retirement home for around 150 individuals in suburban Havana. A seven-acre farm lies next to the facility and supports all of the fresh food needs of the dining hall. Eight full-time, non-resident employees manage the garden every day along with the help of around 15 residents from the home. The residents are invited to help on the farm each morning when the air is fresh and cool. I had numerous conversations with the residents at Santovenia; many seniors reported similar benefits to those I had already observed (physical movement, access to fresh food, etc.).

The most poignant observation at Santovenia, however, did not come from those short interviews. It came from observing the resident who brought a snack to the work crew at about 10:30. She was in her 90’s and clearly suffered from severe dementia. And yet, as everyone crowded around her for a snack of cookies and juice, she was overcome with joy – for those 10 minutes every day, she was the center of attention in her community. She had a reason to get out of bed every morning. Because there was a garden program at her home, she could be useful and feel loved and appreciated, even though she wasn’t even gardening! Because her friends and fellow residents were involved in the garden, she wanted to be part of it too. She was able to be an integral part of her community despite her severe mental condition.

As I prepared to depart that day, one of the workers on the farm at Santovenia said to me, “all human beings are capable of doing something, and they should have that opportunity.” I nodded yes in hearty agreement.