WORDS BY ALYSSA STEVENSON, PHOTOS BY WILL MILNE
Did you know that there is a shipping container behind Maple Hall at UNT that grows 11 varieties of lettuce in a vertical hydroponic organic garden? Did you know that there is a massive bakery behind Clark Hall that bakes up bagels, croissants, and donuts from scratch? Recently, We Denton Do It had the chance to hang out in the halls of UNT, relive a little of the past, and see what the future has brought that made us a little bit jealous of the college kids down the street.
I moved to Denton in the fall of 2004, from Beaumont, Texas. I lived in Maple Hall, in a large corner room, with a roommate I hardly saw. I remember going down to eat in our dining hall, and never being impressed. We had the panini press, which was kind of a big deal, but not really. I also remember eating a ton of cold blueberry bagels that I picked up from Crumley Hall on my way to my 8 am classes because I didn’t even like the hot breakfast served in the cafeteria. The eggs tasting like styrofoam probably had something to do with it.
Since I’ve been gone though, it seems that the dining hall of my youth has undergone a pretty intense makeover and been reborn into quite the butterfly. In fact, the entire UNT dining system has really shaken things up since then. Instead of continuing in the tradition of freezer to fryer cuisine, of ages past, the UNT dining system is taking a big green leap into the future. While they still purchase products in bulk from Ben E. Keith, the orders are full of raw ingredients ready to be turned into from scratch food for everyone. Each dining hall now has a more defined menu for its residents, but the dining hall behind Maple has since turned into Mean Greens, an all-vegan dining hall.
One of the most interesting parts of Mean Greens is the fact that there is more to this initiative than meets the eye. Vegan is one thing (difficult enough as cooking without butter and animal fats can be) but they’re taking it a step further. There is the first of what will hopefully be many storage container gardens out back. Inside the container now, the operations manager has grown up to 11 different varieties of lettuces organically, and at the peak of dining at UNT has harvested up to 800 heads of lettuce a week. This small container allows for the university to source the lettuce for all of the salad needs of Mean Greens and is still able to send extra to the other dining halls.
The technology of the shipping container/vertical garden allows the campus the ability to supply non-GMO, local, and organic produce for a comparable cost to bulk orders from a supplier. And this is just the beginning. The future will hopefully allow an expansion of this system, and the hope is to diversify the produce that they are able to grow on campus after mastering the container garden.
Across the street, in what used to be Clark Hall, there is now a commissary bakery that supplies the baked good needs for the entire campus and special events. Oh yeah, all of this is from scratch too. So there are fresh croissants, bread, rolls, donuts, bagels, and cakes all being baked right up in giant ovens and mixed in giant mixers on campus. Pierre, an ex-pat from France is heading up some of the operations of the bakery and is serving up one of the best croissants in town. (I’m not even making this up.)
Half of the space is currently under construction now, because the entire campus’ ice cream production will be moving out of Kerr Hall and next to the bakery. Yeah, I said ice cream production. Because they aren’t serving up preservative filled dairy product - they are making their own hard ice cream, gelato, soft serve, and sorbet. Mean Greens even has a soy-based vegan soft serve that rivals some dairy soft serve we’ve tried. I mean, I’m just waiting for the eventual ice cream sandwiches from scratch that are bound to happen.
The kicker for all of this to me is that the kitchens are stocked with chefs who have had pasts in fine dining all over the place. People who have served up dishes in five-star kitchens are the people who are turning the stigma of a cafeteria around. We tried out the Mean Green dinner ourselves and were really impressed. From taking out soda options (hello fresh and creative infused water), to creating an all vegan panini station, and great desserts, we felt like we totally got immersed in a healthy and happy vegan world.
One of our favorite things we tried was an eggplant and pasta dish (the pasta is made from scratch on campus) with an Asian twist. They also made turnips into a truly tasty side dish. I would personally serve the twice baked kimchi potatoes at my next party. There was also a great vegan panini that featured a ‘patty’ made from vegan cheese grits. It was inventive, flavorful, and spot on in texture. Since the food is constantly changing, I’d really just like to say this: there wasn’t a bad dish at the table. In fact, there were some really great dishes that were better than things I’ve eaten at reputable restaurants. And when we went back for Indian food on Wednesday, we converted one of our owners into someone who likes Indian food now. Thanks, Mean Greens - we’ve been trying to get him to like Indian food for a while.
All this to say, we’re really proud of UNT for committing to taking the small steps it takes to make a big change in our food culture on campus and around town. It’s pretty cool, and we’re looking forward to what you do next.
Mean Greens is located inside of the University of North Texas' Maple Hall at 1621 Maple St. You can find out more information on their schedule and other information about Mean Greens at their website. Not a student? Not a problem. Non-students can eat in the dining hall for $7.75 a person. Not a bad deal for a super tasty all you can eat vegan extravaganza.
On weekdays, they are open for breakfast from 7am - 9:30am; lunch from 11am - 2pm; and dinner from 4:30pm - 8pm. You can also grab some grub on Saturdays for breakfast or lunch during the same time frames. Follow along with the other interesting dining UNT dining options at the UNT Dining Services Facebook page.