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Nearly 1 in 4 Iowans eat less than 1 vegetable per day. This drive-through could help.

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Iowans could use some help with “active living and healthy eating.”

Only 27.1% of adult Iowans have a healthy body weight, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health’s June 2022 Healthy Iowans: Iowa’s State Health Assessment report. And while the federal 2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults and adolescents eat 2½ to 4 cups of vegetables and 1½ to 2½ cups of fruit daily, Healthy Iowans revealed that 22.7% of adult Iowans eat less than one vegetable per day and 40.4% eat less that one fruit per day.

Fast-food restaurants offer little help in the way of healthy food options. But Clayton Farms Salads — the Midwest’s first salad and smoothie drive-through and indoor farm — seeks to change that.

Menu at Clayton Farms Salads, a salad and smoothie drive-through restaurant and indoor farm in Ames.

Menu at Clayton Farms Salads, a salad and smoothie drive-through restaurant and indoor farm in Ames.

With greens grown 10 feet away, serving ‘world’s freshest salads’

Clayton Farms Salads opened March 31 at 2435 Grand Ave. in Ames, and by the time I was able to visit in mid-May, had already served 10,000 salads and smoothies. By the time this column was released, it will likely have surpassed 15,000.

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“What’s exciting about this is you have a college town of mid-60,000s (Ames),” said Clayton Mooney, co-founder of Clayton Farms and Clayton Farms Salads. “And all of a sudden we can bring the world’s freshest salads to individuals and get the city thinking more about healthy fast food, which in my opinion today doesn’t really exist.”

As customers drive to place their orders, pay and pick up, they can view rows of lettuce and microgreens, growing in trays, through the former Fazoli restaurant windows. The restaurant has been converted to an indoor farm, growing oak leaf and butterhead lettuce, peppery arugula and crunchy romaine. The microgreens include pea shoots, broccoli sprouts, micro radishes and sunflower shoots.

Clayton Farms Salads opened March 31 at 2435 Grand Ave.  in Ames.  It features salads and smoothies using greens that are grown on-site.

Clayton Farms Salads opened March 31 at 2435 Grand Ave. in Ames. It features salads and smoothies using greens that are grown on-site.

All salads — from the Garden to the Crunchy Asian, Caesar, Southwest, the new Mediterranean or a build-your-own — include a mix of lettuce and microgreens. Those with tomatoes feature fresh cherry tomatoes grown at Clayton Farms down the road, which can now be purchased at the drive-through by the half-pint. Their smoothies, from pineapple to berry to matcha — and the new Strawberry Sunshine — also contain microgreens.

Mooney considers their salads the “world’s freshest salads” because, unlike grocery store produce, which is sold more than three days post-harvest, Clayton Farms Salads employees cut the greens grown on-site and carry them 10 feet to the kitchen, where they’re ready to be served right away, thus retaining their full nutritional value.

“I would say all of our microgreens — and microgreens in general — have 30 times more nutrition on average than their adult counterparts of the larger food items.”

Technology makes growing greens on-site possible

The indoor farm uses a five stack Nutrient Film Technique system, though Mooney says “hydroponic garden” is a more user-friendly name for it. “Nutrient Film Technique is a really fancy way of saying, in hydroponics, that we have these channels that we just pump the water and nutrients through.”

Clayton Farms Salads'  The Nutrient Film Technique system, or hydroponic garden, is used to grow lettuce and microgreens for salads and smoothies.

Clayton Farms Salads’ Nutrient Film Technique system, or hydroponic garden, is used to grow lettuce and microgreens for salads and smoothies.

The software, which acts as an on-site horticulturalist, ensures that the plants get what they need, when they need it, with no wasted water, fertilizer or other inputs. Any unused water is recycled. “It (software) is watching for the temperature, the humidity, the lighting schedule, the nutrient schedule. It’s looking at plant health overall.”

Sensors constantly gather this information, and farm team members review the data, which can be done remotely, so Mooney doesn’t need to be on-site daily. This system requires not only a lot less labor than traditional farming, but also a lot less water.

“One of my favorite statistics, especially having grown up on a traditional small family farm in southeast Iowa,” Mooney said, “is for every one month we grow food on our equipment here, we save one year of water.” Or put another way, Mooney said it takes the system less than a gallon of water to grow a pound of lettuce, whereas traditional farming takes a dozen or more gallons to grow the same amount.

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Additionally, Clayton Farms Salads uses non-GMO seeds and does not use additives to speed up growth or pesticides, which are not needed because there are no pests, due to the controlled environment.

“I like to joke that the only bugs we get here are software bugs,” Mooney said. But those bugs can be just as destructive as the live kind, which Mooney and the team discovered the hard way. “We came in the next day and all the plants were flat and we’re like, ‘What is going on? Oh. We overfed them by 10 times.’”

The growing technology, equipment and profitability model was created and debugged at the indoor Clayton Farms. Mooney was pleased by the fact that, while the average US indoor farm took seven years to reach profitability, the Ames farm took two years. Clayton Farms established a direct consumer subscription model, where customers choose which of the 14 different produce options they want and the frequency of the delivery. The model was expanded to the Twin Cities market as well.

Clayton Mooney, co-founder of Clayton Farms Salads in Ames, Iowa.

Clayton Mooney, co-founder of Clayton Farms Salads in Ames, Iowa.

Another Clayton Farms Salads drive-through coming soon

In August, Mooney hopes to have found a restaurant for a second drive-through salad and farm in the Twin Cities or Des Moines, whichever occurred first. The plan will then be to open in September.

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He and his team are also working on a couple of partnerships to figure out how they can improve distribution and get into more rural and urban communities that are less food secure. They hope to have something in place by the end of this year.

“Our mission has always been about providing people with the food they deserve,” Mooney said. “The way I see how we accomplish that is getting these drive-through plus farms launched into as many locations as possible throughout the US So Ames is one of 10,000.”

Only 9,999 to go.

Rachelle Chase is an author and an opinion columnist, who’s also launched a new column, Trailblazers & Trendsetters, at the Des Moines Register. Follow Rachelle at facebook.com/rachelle.chase.author or email her at [email protected].

For more information

To order online from Clayton Farms Salads, arrange for pickup or schedule a delivery, get the app, or subscribe, visit ClaytonFarms.com/salads.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: How a salad drive-through could help Iowans with nutrition