Sustainability in plain sight: UNCW adds aquaponic tank to dining hall

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A new aquaponics system at UNCW's Wagoner dining hall will give students a hands-on learning opportunity while also raising awareness of sustainable food practices. Photo courtesy Jeff Janowski/UNCW.
A new aquaponics system at UNCW’s Wagoner dining hall will give students a hands-on learning opportunity while also raising awareness of sustainable food practices. Photo courtesy Jeff Janowski/UNCW.

Sustainability will soon be on the menu at UNC-Wilmington’s dining hall.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Leslie Hossfeld, professor and chair of the university’s sociology department, and Matt Rogers of Aramark, the company that oversees Campus Dining, UNCW’s Wagoner Hall will soon have an onsite aquaponics facility.

Aquaponics is the blending of aquaculture–the farming of fish and other sea life–and hydroponics–the process of growing plants without soil. The combination provides a mutually beneficial system in which the large amount of waste from aquaculture is converted to a sort of fertilizer for the vegetables and plants.

UNCW faculty says the 250-gallon tank will serve not only as a eco-friendly way to grow local produce–and eventually fish–but also as a reminder to students and faculty of the importance of sustainable food practices, as well as the science behind it.

Campus Dining plans to construct a sitting area around the new tank, which will be installed this summer, so students can observe the project’s progression firsthand, Hossfeld noted.

“This is an excellent way to bring the issues of sustainability to the students in a setting that they use every day…There are countless ways in which students can learn about sustainability by simply sitting around during lunch watching it progress on a daily basis,” she said.

The idea for bringing an aquaponics tank to campus grew out of Hossfeld’s interest in the work Feast Down East, a local nonprofit farm-to-table organization. Eventually, she wrote a grant with ETEAL – UNCW’s Applied Learning Center, and was able to pull in faculty from science departments to support and participate in the project. UNCW also partnered with Feast Down East and Progressive Gardens.

As professors and students work to calibrate the system, they’re already looking ahead to the educational opportunities the tank will provide.

“Of course, insuring peak operation is one of the educational components of the system, which really is one of the primary goals the project,” said Dr. Roger Shew, who teaches, among other courses, environmental geology and oceanography. “The water, fish and plants should and must be monitored, and this represents an opportunity for our students. Monitoring, measuring and adjusting are all part of what we do in science.”

Hussfeld said her students will engage in examining their ecological footprint and how it relates to alternative food systems and sustainability.

The tank is what faculty is calling a “demonstration project,” a smaller scale system meant to function more as a teaching tool and means of raising awareness. But Shew said it will still produce some food for local consumption.
And, Hussfeld added, plans are already in the works to add a larger tank at a second campus dining hall next year.

“We anticipate a…larger scale next year with a 500 gallon tank and larger kit,” she said.

Even as is, the tank will stand in plain sight as a symbol to students and staff who pass through Wagoner to grab a bite to eat.

“This small project is much more than proof of concept and even more than education–we believe it is also inspirational. We have done many projects on campus, such as energy savings, water reduction, reduction of waste and increasing recycling and we even have a small raised garden where students have planted and grown vegetables,” he said. “Students need these tangible projects that help them to develop a desire to do more, to participate and to make UNCW and the community even more sustainable.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.