Building a sustainable food culture on campus

Since nearly half of the Earth’s usable land is designated for human agriculture, food consumption significantly impacts our planet. According to a comprehensive study published in Science last year, our current relationship to consuming and producing food is not sustainable for the health of the land, water or global climate.

The current food supply chain is responsible for 26% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention other direct impacts to the natural ecosystems of our earth, its water systems and its wildlife.

The study suggests that moving to a non-animal diet could reduce land use by 76% and greenhouse gas emissions by 49%. The study also notes that the United States consumes meat at three times the global average, making our impacts and potential for affecting change even greater as food consumers with choices.

But as a different study published this year points out, not all consumers impact the environment equally, suggesting that broad shifts in food consumption will also have to include an understanding of the socioecological barriers some face in improving our cuisine consequences on the climate. In any case, all data points to a need for significant changes to our food systems.

Fortunately, there are multiple opportunities to get involved with shifting to a more sustainable food culture on campus. One example is the Hydroponics Club, which officially formed last year as a spin-off of Engineers Without Borders. The club’s president, Ian Lavin, is an engineering student who is passionate about growing fresh produce in new and innovative ways.

The club is currently utilizing two hydroponic systems—a deep-water system and a Dutch bucket system—to grow leafy greens and tomatoes. Each system lends different benefits for different plants.

The water use of the systems is relatively low—10 to 15 gallons per five-week growing cycle versus modern toilets which require about 1.6 gallons per flush. No land is required to grow the produce and because the growing environment is controlled (indoors), there are no pesticides required and the production is more dependable.

According to Lavin, food in a hydroponic system also grows between 25% and 30% faster than conventional growing methods. He believes hydroponic growing systems have great potential for addressing some of the world’s food production problems.

“By staggering the growing cycles, you can achieve a steady stream of fresh produce year-round,” said Lavin. “In addition to exploring hydroponics as a sustainable food production method, the club also recognizes the lack of access to fresh, nutritious foods that some populations face and chooses to donate much of the produce grown to the food pantry on campus.”

Last year, the Hydroponics Club applied for a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) grant and space in Lassonde Studios for what is called the Aqua Project. They hope to build four hydroponic drip walls that utilize vertical space to grow greens. The first wall was finished in October 2019 and will be installed in the Lassonde lobby in the coming months.

If you’re interested in joining, Lavin said anyone with a passion for produce or growing systems is welcome, and the Hydroponics Club isn’t the only option to engage with sustainable food systems on campus.

Here are several food clubs that are building a new food culture in the U community:

Edible Campus Gardens

Click here to receive the weekly newsletter detailing upcoming events and volunteer activities.

Slow Food U of U

The Slow Food Student Chapter addresses issues of food justice, access, local food systems and more. Click here to get on their email list.

Real Food Challenge

The Real Food Challenge student group works with University Dining Services and administration to build relationships with local producers and shift our institution’s food purchases toward more real food. Click here to fill out a volunteer interest form through the Bennion Center.

Food Recovery Network 

The Food Recovery Network is the largest student movement fighting food waste and hunger in America. Click here to get involved with the U’s chapter.

Feed U Pantry

The U’s food pantry aims to minimize hunger among students, their families, faculty and staff by providing free, accessible and nutritious food. Click here to fill out a volunteer form.

Hydroponics Club

Click here to get involved.