As examples of high-profile sustainability projects go, a new initiative at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) is hard to beat. Rather than telling students about food grown locally, the university is growing it so locally that it’s hard to miss. That is, right in the middle of the school’s Wagoner Dining Hall, where a 250-gallon aquaponic tank now sits that will produce herbs, veggies and, in time, fish, for the campus dining program, which is managed by Aramark.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture and hydroponic technology, allowing plants and fish to coexist as waste products from the fish (in this case, tilapia) serve as nutrients for the plants, which, by using the waste up, keep the water from becoming toxic for the fish.
The first crops—mostly lettuces—are expected sometime in June, says Matt Rogers, executive director of dining. “They’ll ramp up with different stages over the summer, growing things like kale, chard and various flowering fruits and vegetables. By the fall we expect to start crops like tomatoes and cucumbers.”
The fish initially will be used in a special dinner for students involved in the project sometime in the fall. Production for wider use is slated for further out and obviously will only be for special events given the limited production volume.
Plans also call for adding a tabletop onto the tank in the next few weeks so that students could sit around it, further boosting the project’s primary goal, which is to educate students about sustainability. A live video feed is also a possibility at some point, and down the line another tank could be added to another dining venue if this one provides to be a hit.
The aquaponics tank is a joint project between UNCW’s departments of sociology and criminology, marine biology and biology and environmental studies.
“Students are keenly aware of the importance of local food, sustainable food supplies and their role as citizens in minimalizing our ecological footprints,” says Leslie Hossfeld, chair of UNCW’s department of sociology and criminology. “Aquaponics, like other sources of food production, is a perfect way to teach sustainability and the importance of being cognizant of one's ecological footprint.”
Students will be able to conduct activities involving chemistry, physics, biology and sustainability to solidify their understanding of scientific theories. With hopes of creating a “how-to” guide for use in other educational settings, the tank will provide many hours of learning for students across a wide array of disciplines.
UNCW campus dining provided some of the funding and support for this project along with UNCW’s departments of sociology and criminology, environmental studies, the college of arts and sciences, local business Progressive Gardens, the university’s ETEAL (Experiencing Transformative Education through Applied Learning ) initiative and Feast Down East, a local organization that promotes local sourcing of food products.
Contact Mike Buzalka at [email protected]