Inside Project Tomato

Project Tomato offers a lesson on food, farming and sustainability

Freshman Mitchell Yep methodically peels tomatoes, his white T-shirt stained with red juice. What’s his prep cooking secret?

“It’s actually a core workout,” he jokes, leaning back to avoid a squirting tomato. “Once you get that, you have to think like a tomato to skin a tomato. Also, wear a red shirt.”

Yep and 10 other first-year Ducks chat affably but work efficiently in their assembly line in the UO’s central kitchen, a pristine, industrial environment that’s the opposite of — but very much connected to — the local farms where they’ve spent the last three days.


The Farm-to-Fork Dinner in Carson Dining on Thursday, Oct. 27, will feature pizzas made with Project Tomato sauce, as well as other local and regional products.

Project Tomato Sauce Recipe

10 pounds local tomatoes
1½ TBS chopped garlic
1½ TBS dry basil
2 cans (6 oz. each) tomato paste
2 TBS kosher salt

Directions: Visit farm and pick tomatoes. Rinse and core, blanch in hot water, shock in cold water, peel and de-seed. Add additional ingredients and puree.

They rinse, core, blanch, peel and de-seed 1,000 pounds of tomatoes they picked, making 90 gallons of sauce. That’s enough for 1,920 pizzas.

Sauce day is the culmination of Project Tomato, a four-day orientation program held the week before fall quarter begins. First-year students explore the local community and sustainability issues while helping out — and camping on — local farms. Of course, that also means keeping farmer’s hours.

“We were sleeping at the Laughing Stock Farm, and you could hear the roosters and the pigs waking up,” recalled Yep, a PathwayOregon scholar from Portland. “Once they’re up, no one else is going back to bed.” But the best part, he said, was mealtime, when the students could just hang out and get to know each other.

“I made friendships that will last a lifetime,” Yep said.

One of five orientation trips for the Community for Ecological Leaders, an Academic Residential Community based in Hawthorne Hall, Project Tomato gives incoming students an immersive experience that’s as much about getting to know each other as it is about sustainability.

It’s a chance to make new friends and ease into college life while learning about the Eugene area, community-supported agriculture and buying local produce — as well as growing their own near campus. Sometimes traveling for miles by bike (rain or shine), the students visited a farmer’s market, Mt. Pisgah and several farms and community gardens.

They learned about Willamette Valley geography and ecology, as well as the traditional food production methods of Native Americans from this region. Area experts led workshops on land use policies, organic farming, composting and local food systems.

The students made apple cider, gathered free-range chicken eggs and helped move a flock of laying ducks. They volunteered at Food for Lane County, foraged for their own salads at the UO’s Urban Farm, practiced the Zen of weeding (as well as the art of foraging for edible weeds) and learned about food security while sampling tomatillos at a family-led community garden guided by the nonprofit Huerto de la Familia.

The program started seven years ago, thanks to the tiny seed of an idea planted by a student, said Office of Sustainability Director Steve Mital.

“The genesis of Project Tomato was a simple — and not so simple — question from an undergraduate,” Mital said. “She asked why the dining halls didn’t have more local and organic food.

“I get questions all the time, about any number of things that could green up the UO’s performance. The answers are always complicated. But instead of just saying ‘It’s complicated,’ I thought we should create student experiences that help them see the complexity.

“I said to her, ‘Let’s pick something.’ For whatever reason, we settled on tomatoes. She visited a bunch of farms, brought other students along and talked to the UO kitchens about what they pay for sauce. Instead of me giving a bunch of dry, boring answers about complexities, the students got to grapple with this kind of farm-to-fork project themselves. ”

Project Tomato also helps students develop questions they can answer through classes and research projects, Mital said. Throughout their college careers, he hopes, the students will further explore the issues they were introduced to during these four days. 

For Alyssa Larimer, an environmental studies major from Edmonds, Washington, the highlight of the experience was meeting locals who walk the walk when it comes to sustainable living.

“It was really great,” she said. “I learned a lot more than I could have hoped to learn. I’m interested in people’s relationships with food. We’ve gotten to the point where society isn’t focused on where food comes from. There’s a disconnect.

“The best part was hearing all the different farmers and people talk about what they are so passionate about. To hear someone talk about something passionately is a lot different than just reading about it in a textbook. It’s exciting.”

By Ed Dorsch, University Communications