Bubba the tortoise, Cindy the hippopotamus, and many of their leaf-loving friends at the Philadelphia Zoo have a new favorite snack: fresh romaine lettuce and other leafy greens. It comes courtesy of Camden County.

The county's Office of Sustainability recently partnered with the Philadelphia Zoo to sell leafy greens at 50 cents a head to the zoo's animal nutrition program. And that money goes back into the county's indoor garden project at the Lakeland complex in Gloucester Township, which also donates food to Camden County Senior Services, Cathedral Kitchen, and the Neighborhood Center in Camden. The county ships produce such as romaine lettuce that is grown without soil in its indoor community garden.

"Everybody who gets the leafy greens likes it," said Barbara Toddes, the zoo's nutrition program director.

Master gardener and volunteer Murray Shipon trims basil plants at Camden County’s hydroponic greenhouse.
TIM TAI
Master gardener and volunteer Murray Shipon trims basil plants at Camden County’s hydroponic greenhouse.

Camden County's indoor garden opened in January 2017 in a greenhouse complex where the state used to run a youth program. Next to a traditional greenhouse that grows flowers to spruce up parks, the new greenhouse uses hydroponic growing methods to harvest during the off-season without soil. The county has five types of hydroponic systems. There, they grow a mix of leafy greens, basil, tomatoes and more. So far this year, they've shipped 600 pounds of lettuce alone.

"We're the only county in the state that actually has a department for sustainability," said Freeholder Jon Young Sr. "We really take the lead on it. We're hoping to expand this footprint soon."

Instead of using the tens of thousands of gallons of water needed for an acre of crops, the equipment helps the garden recycle water and produce 540 plants in about 28 days, master gardeners there said. The garden runs from August through the winter so the county isn't competing with local farmers.

The zoo purchases more than a thousand dollars of produce a week from various vendors, said Toddes. The Camden shipments will help cut down on mass-produced bagged products. While there's not much of a difference nutritionally between local produce and its mass-produced counterpart, Camden's hydroponic greens help the zoo reduce its carbon footprint, Toddes said. But the zoo takes steps not to buy food that would impact people with limited access to fresh groceries.

"We want to buy as much locally as we can," she said. "When we first started, it was back in 2005. Back then, anybody who was growing food within the city limits just wanted it to go to the population, which is appropriate. That's why we reached out outside the city. Of course the priority has to be people."

A golden pheasant eats lettuce from Camden County during a feeding demonstration at the Philadelphia Zoo’s Wings of Asia exhibit. The zoo uses produce grown in Camden County’s hydroponic greenhouse to help feed its animals.
TIM TAI
A golden pheasant eats lettuce from Camden County during a feeding demonstration at the Philadelphia Zoo’s Wings of Asia exhibit. The zoo uses produce grown in Camden County’s hydroponic greenhouse to help feed its animals.

So far, the zoo's birds, primates, and tortoises are some of the biggest fans of the hydroponic greens. The bright-colored birds in the zoo's Wings of Asia exhibit generally pay no mind to anyone without a worm in a hand. But when the zookeepers stroll through with a bucket of Camden greens, the exotic birds will flap on over and eat out of the zookeeper's hand — or the ground, if that's faster.

There's also a behind-the-scenes tour where patrons can feed the produce to such giraffes as Stella and Gus, though they mostly eat long branches of green leaves, such as the ones from acacia and mulberry trees. Those leaves come from another local partnership, Toddes said.

When Peco trims mulberry trees, it donates the leaves to the zoo instead of dumping them. The zoo also partners with Pennsylvania State University, which donates blood from livestock because vampire bats are notoriously picky eaters. "They only eat blood," she said. "And they don't suck blood, they lap it."

The money from each shipment helps the county run the garden and its sustainability education programs. A group of five volunteers runs the hydroponic greenhouse. All the equipment used for the hyrdoponic garden cost the county $30,000 to build. The county expects the annual revenue generation from the zoo partnership, which will offset the program's costs, will likely be about $3,500. The county's greenhouse program also received funding from a Rutgers University Weed Out Hunger grant. Rutgers offers this grant to community and school gardens in Camden, Burlington, and Mercer Counties to supply fresh produce for food pantries and soup kitchens. Partnerships such as the one with the zoo will help make the program self-sustainable, Young said.

"People are starting to catch on to it and understand what we do," said Young. "Just to teach people how to grow fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs throughout the winter time. It's going to be really huge. Anyone can do it. … You can either feed somebody or teach them how to fish. That's the same thing that we want to do."

Though farmers are mostly sticking to traditional growing techniques, hydroponic gardening is a growing trend for personal gardens and educational programs in schools. Restaurants are also using these techniques for herbs, said Valerie Brown, program coordinator for the office of sustainability.

"The beauty of the hydroponics is, you're saving energy because we're using LED, very small pumps, and you're recycling water," said Brown. "And you're using mostly ambient light."

Young hopes to make similar deals with new partners, as well as expand the garden's capacity. Young says the office plans to reach out to smaller local zoos, for example. And the more that's produced, the more the Philly Zoo will buy, said Toddes.

"As zoos go more toward this, it's just one more group of people who are interested in sustainable farming," she said. "You need to have a critical mass in order to make any of these things sustainable economically."