Pitt brings eco-friendly Babylon Farm machines to the dining halls


Alyssa Carnevali | Staff Photographer

Pitt recently installed eco-friendly “Babylon Micro-Farms” to dining halls in an effort to foster a more sustainable dining experience.

By Gabriella Garvin, For The Pitt News

Walking into the dining halls this semester, Pitt students can find Pitt Eats staff using four large glass machines flourishing with herbs. These transparent fridge-like structures represent the next step toward a more sustainable campus.

These machines, known as “Babylon Micro-Farms,” use controlled glass environments with hydroponics — a process that involves growing herbs in an aqueous solvent without soil — to produce greens for Pitt’s chefs to add into their recipes.

Pitt Eats installed the farms this December and chefs are now actively using them at four on-campus dining locations — Schenley Café, the Eatery, the Perch and Cathedral Café. They’ll be growing thyme, cilantro, wasabi arugula, pansy flowers, sorrel, marigold, romaine and other greens in the machines.

Kathryn Lavelle, marketing director of Pitt Eats, said the Babylon technology — including its inter-machine cameras that allow her to see all of the farms and their updates through one mobile app — help to ensure that the farms are stable and the herbs are being maintained.

“Babylon farms have some unique features that really help manage the machines,” Lavelle said. ”There are cameras in the facility as well as notifications so if something goes down their support team is able to help us.”

Lisia Spellman, Pitt’s sustainability director, is also fond of the technology. Spellman said the app, which eight Pitt Eats managers use, enables them to closely monitor the greens’ growth.

“The app is the best thing that could happen. I worked with the other system we had in the Eatery and it wasn’t the greatest because we couldn’t see what was happening inside of the farms,” Spellman said. “With Babylon, we can see all of the locations and how the plants are growing.”

Spellman said this technology allowed the team to respond instantly when a farm shut down briefly on Monday.

“One of the farms shut down completely,” Spellman said. “I was able to see that we couldn’t see the pictures from the farm and was able to talk to people at Babylon and figure out what was happening. They helped me make sure the farms were operating correctly.”

Spellman also believes the technology ensures the school has access to fresh greens regularly, since the machines are projected to harvest the herbs that are grown biweekly.

“We had the first harvest last week,” Spellman said. “So with microgreens every two weeks we should have a harvest and every week we should have something the way that we are planting.”

Spellman said Pitt Eats will make no menu changes as a result of the installations. Instead, the herbs grown will be incorporated into Pitt’s current rotation of meal plans.

“The items that they picked to grow are surrounding the current menu,” Spellman said. “Though, residential dining does have the opportunity to change the seeds as the menus change.”

Alexander Olesen, Babylon’s CEO and co-founder, said Babylon began at the University of Virginia. He said Babylon’s goal was to achieve maximum sustainability through the design of the farms, reducing the environmental impact of farming on the environment.

“We worked day and night, continuously improving the designs of the models and endlessly seeking fundraising,” Olesen said. “Our group’s work has been dramatically impactful, as the products are entirely free of chemicals and produce 90% more yield.”

Lavelle said the micro-farms are a great way to get fresh food locally, especially in Pitt’s urban environment where there’s little room for larger farms.

“This is a very urban campus. Some campuses where there is more land have the opportunity of community gardens,” Lavelle said. “Space is obviously an issue at our campus, and the micro-farms allow our culinary teams to grab the microgreens needed and place them right onto the students’ plates.”

According to Babylon’s website, Pitt’s four micro-farms will save the University around 390 pounds of food waste annually and about 52,000 gallons of water annually.

Spellman said the Babylon technology will not only improve the quality of the meals in the dining halls but encourage activism and awareness in the student body about what they’re eating.

“I hope to bring more awareness to these students in terms of what they’re eating, not just on campus specifically,” Spellman said. “Still, when they are off-campus, ensuring they are always asking where the food is coming from because that has a lot of sustainability impact. There are a lot of answers you can get when you have questions such as these.”