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Forget peanuts and Cracker Jack: These baseball teams have stadium-grown greens

Dirt is for more than filling base paths at the ballparks of these 'farm teams' – it’s for growing food too.

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    'Fenway Farms,' a garden plot at Fenway Park in Boston, grows fresh vegetables not typically found in baseball stadiums – arugula, Swiss chard, and broccoli rabe, for instance – for use by the chefs at the EMC Club kitchen, just 25 feet away. It's one of four major league baseball stadiums growing food in their own gardens.
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As fans sitting on the third base line streamed into Boston’s Fenway Park for the Red Sox home opener in April, they were greeted with the sight of 1,800 square feet of raised beds on a formerly unused 5,000-square-foot rooftop.

“Fenway Farms” initially will grow fresh vegetables not typically found in baseball stadiums—arugula, Swiss chard, and broccoli rabe, for instance—for use by the chefs at the EMC Club kitchen, just 25 feet away.

The ballpark may not conjure images of health and sustainability—and certainly not innovation in urban agriculture—but a handful of Major League clubs just may change that, and in the process give new meaning to “farm teams.” This season, the Red Sox join the Colorado Rockies, the San Diego Padres, and the San Francisco Giants in starting to grow a portion of their stadium concessions in on-site farms and gardens.

The farm’s location is highly visible to many of the roughly 37,000 fans who fill the ballpark for the team’s 81 home games and the handful of concerts and other events to which Fenway plays host—a potential influence that is not lost on Chris Knight, the team’s manager of facility planning and services.

“We have such a platform here at this level of sports and at Fenway Park—this is one way we can make an impact for the environment and nutrition,” he said.

When the first vegetables and herbs are harvested in early May, Fenway Farms will be contributing its part to a long-term push at the ballpark to operate more sustainably—and a more recent emphasis on integrating healthy food into concessions. Knight said the idea for the farm came from Linda Pizzuti Henry, wife of Sox co-owner John Henry. Last summer, the founders of Green City Growers—a company converting unused space into farms and gardens—met with Henry to pitch ideas for turning that dream into a reality.

The process “picked up quickly” from there, said Green City Growers founder Jessie Banhazl, with the team picking out a site on the front-office roof and growers meeting with chefs at the seasonally inspired EMC Club to come up with a lineup of veggies to grow. Recover Green Roofs began construction and farm installation in mid-March, and plants went into the newly poured soil last week—just in time for the first home game of the season.

“It’s wild. We’re really, really, really excited about this,” said Banhazl, whose company will maintain the farm. “This particular project is the coolest and most widespread reach that we’ve ever seen with an urban agriculture project.”

The foray by the Red Sox into urban agriculture is unusual among modern professional baseball teams—but the team is not the first to catch the grow-your-own bug. In 2012, at the stadium chef’s request, San Diego Padres head groundskeeper Luke Yoder planted more than a dozen hot pepper and tomato plants in the Petco Park bullpen. In 2013, the Colorado Rockies, working with their catering contractor, Aramark, installed a 600-square-foot kitchen garden near Gate A at Coors Field, which sprouts an assortment of flowers, herbs, and other vegetables. Much of the food harvested from “The GaRden” is found in dishes at the stadium’s premier Mountain Ranch Club.

Last season, the San Francisco Giants and Bon Appétit Management built The Garden at AT&T Park, a 4,320-square-foot dining pavilion serving produce grown in several nearby gardens and a high-yield vertical farm. (There was even a bit of controversy when the Padres took issue with Giants’ marketing claiming to have the majors’ first farm, claims that were later retracted.)

The Garden pavilion contains two food concepts: The Hearth Table uses only gluten-free ingredients, while The Garden Table serves vegetarian offerings. Bartenders even integrate fresh-grown herbs into the cocktails. Don’t worry, you can still get your all-beef hot dog at The Garden, but Laura Braley, spokesperson for Bon Appétit Management, said the ballpark simply wants to provide alternatives for fans seeking a more nutritious meal and sees the on-site farm as a way to inspire fans to think about the source of their food.

While the Sox, Rockies, Padres, and Giants lead the majors in progressive food and nutrition policies, other clubs appear to be competing for the most outrageous offerings on the other end of the health spectrum. At Rangers Stadium in Texas, for instance, fans this season will be able to dine on a deep-fried “S’mOreo” (exactly what it sounds like), chicken-fried corn on the cob, and bacon-flavored cotton candy. The Arizona Diamondbacks this season introduced the Churro Dog: a churro inside a chocolate-frosted long-john doughnut, topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and both chocolate and caramel syrups.

Make no mistake: Sox and Giants fans still have their pick of less-than-nutritious stadium foods. Neither club would provide data on how well their healthier offerings have been selling, but a 2014 study of a healthy-food overhaul of a concession stand at a high-school athletics facility found that the changes had no negative effect on concessions sales and even improved overall satisfaction among parents.

Varsity football is a world away from Major League Baseball, sure, but with dining trends tend toward healthier food nationally, there is both interest and demand that these programs could tap into.

Besides nutritional and environmental goals for their farms, though, both the Giants and Red Sox have strong educational outreach programs as well. The Giants earlier this year unveiled plans to use The Garden at AT&T Park as an outdoor nutrition and agricultural classroom for children on nongame days, giving kids a chance to learn the importance of healthy eating. Boston has similar plans for youth enrichment—and even dreams of farming in other parts of the ballpark—as soon as farm operations are streamlined and crops are coming up.

While the first veggies won’t be ready to harvest for a few more weeks, Banhazl said she caught glimpses of the the farm’s potential influence on opening day. As she watched child after child run up to the railing and see the new beds for the first time, she saw something come alive in them.

“They’d say, ‘Oh my God, the Red Sox have a farm?’ ” she recalled. “ ‘We should do this, Mom!’ ”

• Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications. 

This article originally appeared at TakePart, a leading source of socially relevant news, features, opinion, entertainment, and information – all focused on the issues that shape our lives. Visit takepart.com/start-from-the-source.

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