On the patio at the Anteatery, an all-you-can-eat dining hall on campus at the University of California, Irvine, 30 aeroponic towers are clustered behind a decaled plexiglass wall.
Students eating nearby hear water dripping every 20 minutes as internal pumps run water through the system, misting the roots of the 44 bunches of vegetables growing in every tower. Just before harvest, roughly every three weeks, each bunch of greens flows out of a port in the white recycled plastic tower.
This is the One Mile Meals project, a garden meant to not only give university students a glimpse of how some of their food is grown but also to be an ongoing source of food for a few spots on campus. All produce is used within a one-mile radius of the garden.
Sean Tedder, Aramark’s resident district manager for the university, says the garden was installed at the end of August. They unveiled it this past fall at an open event at the garden that educated attendees about how an aeroponic garden works, where they served appetizers using greens grown in the towers.
The majority of the vegetables – they have the capacity to grow plants such as eggplant and tomatoes in addition to greens and herbs – go directly to the Anteatery, where they’re incorporated into the dining hall menu. Some of the produce goes to the university’s catering services. Two towers supply all the greens for the salad bar at the FRESH Basic Needs Hub, the on-campus food pantry and resource center that addresses food insecurity.
The university contracts with Lettuce Grow, a private company that supplies and installs the towers and maintains the garden.
According to the company website, the towers are made stateside from “ocean‑bound plastic recovered from coastal communities” that lack robust recycling programs.
Lettuce Grow staff spends two or three hours each week cleaning the garden, replacing the water and balancing the water pH levels. Though the plants are started in soil from seed in the company’s Los Angeles greenhouse, once plants are transferred to the garden, they grow in rock wool, a soil-less medium made from spun basalt and chalk. Nutrients and minerals typically found in garden soil are added to the water to emulate the nutrient profile of soil-grown crops.
Tedder says the aeroponic garden is less time-consuming. The university doesn’t have to germinate its own seeds. And weeds are nonexistent.
“The garden uses 90% less water, yields 10 times the amount of produce, does not use pesticides and grows two to three times faster than traditional farms,” Tedder notes. “We are reducing transportation carbon emissions, saving our precious water resources, ensuring that our guests receive the highest quality produce and educating the next generation of innovators.”
They also report that Lettuce Grow has developed a delivery route that includes the UC Irvine campus, other educational campuses and restaurants.
Company employees harvest produce and refill ports in the towers with new seedlings. They also update produce labels so visitors can easily identify what’s growing and email the university a weekly report. Lotus Thai, UC Irvine’s sustainability coordinator with Aramark, checks the garden every week or so and sends updates to Lettuce Grow.
At the start of each season, the university staff chooses what they’d like to grow. In addition to greens and annual herbs, Lettuce Grow offers kitchen garden vegetables, such as tomato, eggplant, cucumber and “lunchbox” sweet pepper starts.
Tedder says they wanted the towers to be visible from the get-go. They noticed that other institutions “usually put these gardens on rooftops or [in] low-traffic areas. We wanted to make sure that students, staff and faculty could actually see the garden.” It’s also an impressive place to include on campus tours.
The patio at the Anteatery, which serves more than 8,000 meals per day, was a natural choice. They secured the garden by encasing it within a plexiglass wall and door, supplied by UC Irvine Housing. The transparent wall allows easy access for workers and lets in the sunlight while making the garden visible. The wall is also an educational tool: It’s decaled with the program logo and information about the program.
UC Irvine is a decorated sustainability leader committed to purchasing sustainable food. Growing their own is a visible way to affirm those commitments and encourage healthy habits.
“In addition to growing our own local produce, we hope that the garden encourages students to be ‘planteaters,’” Tedder says. “Not only does a plant-based diet use fewer resources, such as land and water, but it’s also healthier for our students.”