Fresh Produce at America’s Airports


The somewhat sterile atmosphere of an airport is likely the last place travelers would think of finding fresh produce ready for harvest. Yet, O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York both boast farm-to-terminal agriculture.

“Fresh herbs like cilantro, chives, thyme, parsley mint and three types of basil are among the most popular produce grown at O’Hare’s aeroponic garden. Chefs at restaurants like Wolfgang Puck, Tuscany Café and Tortas Frontera use these herbs on their menus,” says Michael Schulz, director of cost management and standards for HMSHost North America, Bethesda, MD.

HMSHost partnered with the Chicago Department of Aviation in 2011 to open the urban garden at O’Hare’s Terminal 3. More than 40 types of produce — from herbs to lettuces to beans and edible flowers — grow on the 26 towers of the aeroponic garden.

A similar undertaking took root in October 2013, when JetBlue Airways, headquartered in Long Island City, NY, and GrowNYC, which operates 50-plus green markets in the city, collaborated to operate a three-day mid-week mini famers market at the airline’s Terminal 5 at JFK International Airport.

“It was like a small green market, although grab-and-go produce like fresh apples and value-added jams and jellies from our state’s producers sold best,” says Marcel Van Ooyen, president and chief executive of New York-based GrowNYC. “People were in a hurry, but they were excited.”

The idea to build a farm at the airport was an outgrowth of the market.

“We wanted to bring the space to life with greenery for customers and make what was originally a concrete plot a useful space for crew members,” says Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability for JetBlue.

GrowNYC staff placed some 3,000 plastic milk crates within a 24,000-square-foot space to build what is now called the T5 Farm. Mendelsohn says more than 20 different types of produce, including kale, blue potatoes, herbs, carrots and edible flowers, are grown.

Crew members take home the food for free, while the rest is donated to local food banks. The exceptions are the blue potatoes, which are harvested and sent to a processor to make the signature TERRA Blues potato chips served on flights.

“It would be great if more airports built small farms,” says Derik Mortenson, food and beverage manager for Atlanta-based Concessions International. “This would be a huge undertaking, and perhaps something done in partnership with concessionaires. The benefits would include a sustainable source of fresh produce to supplement what we bring in and a green space that travelers could visit during layovers. The demand is there.”