NU partnership with Garfield Produce Company gives local business a ‘boost’


Photo courtesy of Devin Davis

Garfield Produce Company co-founder Judy Thomas speaks to students at a January event held by Compass Group. The company started supplying NU Dining halls with microgreens through Compass in September 2018

Zoe Malin, Reporter

In a 6,000-square-foot warehouse on the West Side of Chicago, the staff at Garfield Produce Company spends their days tending to crops of microgreens. The small business, founded in 2013, grows these edible plants for food distributors, such as Northwestern’s new food provider, Compass Group.

What may look like a typical indoor farm from the outside is also a company that aims to provide jobs to those who face barriers when entering the workforce.

“Our mission is twofold,” said Mark Thomas, the co-founder of Garfield Produce. “We want to create a great product that is well-received by the food community while also creating jobs in under resourced communities.”

After years of selling their microgreens to restaurants and caterers in Illinois, Garfield Produce decided to expand its reach. Judy Thomas, the co-founder of Garfield Produce, said microgreens are “miniature versions of adult plants,” such as kale, broccoli and radishes, and are used by chefs in salads or as garnishes. She said the company is now focused on selling its products to food distributors in order to “be sustainable” as a business.

One of Garfield Produce’s latest partnerships is with NU, specifically through Compass, and Midwest Foods, the food distributor that supplies Compass with produce.

“This partnership with Northwestern has increased our customer base and allowed us to up employment,” Judy Thomas said. “It has created a boost in terms of being able to expand our production too.”

The Thomases’ journey to launching Garfield Produce began while they were volunteering at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, a nonprofit organization in East Garfield Park. Here, they learned about how the nonprofit “got people from homelessness to job-readiness,” Judy Thomas said. However, she added, there were no local jobs available for those in the nonprofit’s programs, and people faced challenges while applying for jobs due to their poor resumes and for some, criminal records.

“So, our thought was, ‘let’s start a company,’” Judy Thomas said.

Ever since, the Thomases have been committed to their twofold mission. Mark Thomas said a little under 50 percent of the company’s current employees have a criminal record. The Thomases also continue to support East Garfield Park, the neighborhood where the company is located. If their company has unsold produce, it is donated to the food pantry at Breakthrough Urban Ministries.

NU’s partnership with Garfield Produce is a part of the Real Food Challenge that University President Morton Schapiro signed in 2015. The challenge is a commitment by the University to increase the amount of “real food”— food produced through means that promote social justice and environmental sustainability — served in dining halls to 20 percent by 2020.

Mark Thomas said Compass follows the spirit of the local food initiative now that it is in charge of NU Dining.

“Compass is not only helping the students at Northwestern by supplying them with delicious and healthy food,” Judy Thomas said. “They are also helping a small, local business that is trying to impact its community for good.”

Judy Thomas said she first heard about the idea of partnering with NU at a December 2017 event hosted by World Chicago Business. The Chicago Anchors for a Strong Economy event connects major Chicago-area institutions with small, local providers. According to the CASE website, NU is an “anchor institution”, or a large organization that collaborates with local businesses through the program. Garfield Produce is an approved supplier.

After their paths crossed, Garfield Produce was invited to present its business to representatives from NU and Compass in July 2018. Two months later, Garfield Produce microgreens began making an appearance in dining halls.

Lisa Carlson, the University’s dietitian, said in an email to The Daily that Garfield Produce’s microgreens are a “perfect addition to student menus.” She said she admires how the company blends sustainability, community building and health foods.

“Microgreens pack a nutrition punch because the nutrients are more concentrated compared with baby greens or even their full-grown counterparts,” Carlson said. “While microgreens may be tiny, they are a mighty good addition to NU Dining.”

Judy Thomas said interacting with students has been one of her favorite parts of the partnership. After meeting with members of the NU community at dining events held by Compass during the school year, Judy Thomas said she hopes to further collaborate with NU students, too. She added that Garfield Produce is in the process of creating research opportunities for those in NU’s Program in Environmental Sciences.

“When students try our product, they ask really good questions and care about what they’re eating.” she said. “But what’s more is that they really care about the story behind their food, too.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @zoermalin

Related Stories:
– Real Food at NU starts planning for campus-wide changes
Campus presents food service plan, dining hall renovations at ASG Senate