Going local? Just add water

By 
Katie Fanuko, Associate Editor

aquaponic lettuce

A fluorescent glow emanating from the Corner Store at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mont., not only draws students for a bite to eat but also for a lesson in alternative farming.

The school installed a 200-gallon aquaponics system in January to grow nutrient-rich, leafy greens. In the self-contained ecosystem, locally caught perch add nitrogen to the water, which is absorbed by Swiss chard and other plants that grow on vertical towers with their roots in the medium and their leaves exposed to the air—almost like ivy on a fence pole. The roots absorb nutrients and filter the water, cleaning it to sustain the fish. LED lighting does the sun’s job.

“[We have] a strong commitment to sustainability and to local food buying,” says Natasha Hegman, garden manager at UM Dining. “It’s something that [students] value, and it contributes to the quality of food and services.”

The aquaponics system was developed by university alumnus Jeff Pernell to replace a setup he created as an independent-study project while still a student. His first iteration was designed to last two years—which it did—but the dining department wanted to replace it with a more durable system.

Growing produce with aquaponics isn’t without a learning curve, according to the university. There were some challenges, such as adjusting the water’s pH balance and finding a mix of produce that can be harvested at different times to maintain the water’s nitrate level. “[The system] is getting tweaked, honed and changed,” says Rebecca Wade, director of health, nutrition and sustainability at UM Dining.

The school found that certain plants, including kale and Swiss chard, thrive in the setup. In late March, the first few heads of Swiss chard were harvested and sold at the dining department’s monthly farmers market. As more produce is harvested, UM Dining likely will use it on salad bars and in menu items, Hegman says.

Aside from the aquaponics system, Hegman also oversees a quarter-acre campus garden and a microgreens garden, which provide some produce to the dining halls. The campus-grown food has been warmly received by students, Hegman says. She adds that the effort has been a great way for UM Dining to foster a dialogue about sustainable food and health. “When food is being grown in front of your eyes, it sort of plays in the back of your mind that these foods are good for me,” Hegman says. 

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion

Foodservice operators and other employers in New York City are adjusting to a new law that enforces paid time off for staff who have been the victims of certain crimes.

Called paid safe leave, the benefit is believed to be among the first of its kind in the nation. A more limited version has been in effect in Minneapolis since last summer.

The New York law applies to employees who have been the victims of actual or threatened domestic violence, unwanted sexual contact, stalking or human trafficking.

Workers can also opt for safe paid leave if a member of their...

Industry News & Opinion

A Massachusetts bill to end lunch shaming has been stalled in the House, reports South Coast Today.

The House chair of the Education Committee voted on Tuesday for further study of the bill, which would prevent schools from throwing away hot lunches and/or serving an alternative meal to students behind on lunch payments. Under the bill, schools would also be unable to bar students with unpaid balances from participating in extracurricular activities.

Additionally, the bill asks schools to take action in reducing families’ meal debt by helping families apply for free or...

Industry News & Opinion

The University of California, Santa Cruz is converting its Cowell Coffee Shop into a “multi-service basic needs cafe” to aid students facing food insecurity .

The new cafe is being created through a partnership with dining services, the school’s center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems and UCSC’s Cowell College. Due to open at the start of the fall semester, the lower part of the cafe will continue to be a study space for students (with free coffee and tea) and will also host nutrition and financial wellness programming.

Upstairs, the kitchen will be used as a...

Managing Your Business
quitting job

What prompts foodservice managers to clean out their offices and head out with a last paycheck? A new survey suggests the triggers may be changing with the times.

The canvass of 2,000 restaurant professionals, conducted by placement firm Gecko Hospitality, shows lifestyle issues abounding among the top 10 reasons for parting with a restaurant employer last year.

Here are the gender-specific lists:

Top 10 reasons female managers leave

1. Better opportunity

2. Unemployed

3. Relocation

4. Not satisfied

5. No growth

6. Long...

FSD Resources

Code for Asynchronous jQuery Munchkin Tracking Code