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Turning colleges in edible campuses

The concept of edible campuses hasn't taken off in Australia, but a team of dedicated nutrition and dietetics experts is determined to see UOW forge a different path

At the base of Building 67 on the University of Wollongong's (UOW) Wollongong campus lies a bustling food court. The hum of conversation rises and falls throughout the day as staff and students come and go, many blissfully unaware they're being watched by some new residents. Slimy ones.

Tropical fish
These are the silent heroes of a Farmwall aquaponics system that has recently found its home at the Aspire cafe, quietly working to introduce the concept of how a circular economy can help achieve environmental sustainability and address food insecurity on campus.

The Farmwall is hard to miss; beautiful microgreens burst from several layers of vertical shelves, showcasing urban farming at its best. The aquaponics system works like a natural ecosystem. The nutrient-rich water from the fish in the bottom is used to grow the plants in the Farmwall, where good bacteria breaks down the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrates. Plant roots clean and filter the water before it flows back into the fish tank and the cycle begins again.

The Farmwall is an aquaponics system located in the Aspire cafe

The introduction of growing microgreens and urban farming at UOW is a joint labour of love for Professor Karen Charlton and Dr Anne McMahon, both from the School of Medical, Indigenous and Health Sciences. The accredited practising dieticians are deeply passionate about food quality, affordability and sustainability for students and staff.

Professor Charlton has always been interested in Australia's food system and production methods. In 2022 she was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship for a project to create a more local, sustainable, healthy and equitable food system in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven region.

"Urgent action is needed to reduce the environmental impact of the food system in Australia," Professor Charlton says.

"Current food production methods and the long supply chain of many items, along with dietary choices are unsustainable in ensuring supply and supporting human and planetary health. What is needed is a more local approach to food systems and livelihoods, and a closer connection of people to where their food is grown."

Adding to the sense of urgency, Professor Charlton feels, is the food insecurity felt by many students and staff on the UOW campus, a problem she says is growing every day as the cost-of-living soars.

"There is no hiding behind this serious issue and recent research our team has conducted found that one in two students (54 per cent) had experienced some level of food insecurity in the previous year," Professor Charlton said.

"We surveyed 197 students in 2022. Of concern was that one in five students were classified as having severe food insecurity, meaning that they would go without food for an entire day. Not surprisingly, the quality of students' diets was poor, with little access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

"It's not uncommon for students to face different financial pressures when they're at university, but we're finding that more and more students' diets are suffering because they can't afford good quality and nutritious food."

According to the World Bank, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Food insecurity is the consequence of these needs not being met and it's something Dr McMahon is hearing students and staff talk about daily.

"Speaking to students about food insecurity and the cost-of-living pressure they're feeling makes me more determined to enhance food and nutrition security at UOW," Dr McMahon said.

"It's imperative we do something to make nutritious food more accessible and affordable for all, we don't want an exclusive food system."

Professor Karen Charlton and Dr Anne McMahon

Dr McMahon was awarded a Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health research grant in 2023. She is using this funding to focus her attention on healthy food sustainability practices to enhance food and nutrition security.

Enter Farmwall. The community-orientated social enterprise grows fresh, local and natural nutrient-rich produce in custom-designed vertical farms.

"We were really excited to start working with the team at Farmwall to get the aquaponic system set up," says Dr McMahon.

"The idea is to use this Farmwall as a model for what we could do on a greater scale across campus. We would love to grow some of the baby plants out and use them in a larger community garden, with the ultimate goal of developing a circular fresh food system here at UOW."

UOW students are encouraged to harvest the microgreens as they need them

Dr McMahon and Professor Charlton say the Farmwall model is ecologically sound and an opportunity to show students the way forward.

"We're integrating the Farmwall into subjects we teach. It's a unique way for us to provide experiential learning opportunities to our students," Dr McMahon said.

"We're encouraging students to harvest the microgreens as they need them and to spread the word across campus that anyone is welcome to harvest some highly nutritious microgreens whenever they want to."

The researchers have also joined forces with UOW Pulse, who are using the Farmwall produce in the Pulse Pantry, Unibar, Aspire café and catering services on campus.

Pulse Pantry is a free food support system available to current UOW students who are feeling the impact of financial hardships. Products within the Pantry are displayed on shelves, and their values are represented as points instead of dollars.

Professor Charlton said initiatives like Pulse Pantry are essential to have on campus to reduce food insecurity and alleviate financial hardship among UOW students.

"Seeing the excess Farmwall produce being given to students in the Pulse Pantry is a perfect example of how a local approach to a food system can improve diet quality," Professor Charlton said.

"It has been estimated that these microgreens are 40 times more nutritious than their fully grown variants, and the nutritional content of these plants is another area we will be researching."

Aspire Head Chef, Jake Agostino, harvesting microgreens

For Lars Oddershede, the Farmwall project is one he'd like to see take off. The UOW Pulse Food and Beverage General Manager has a background in food production and development and says he'd love to see a sustainable food supply chain on campus.

"We know the cost of living is high and we know students are finding it tough and we're exploring ways to make sure all students can have access to fresh and healthy food," Lars said.

One way that UOW Pulse has done this is by incorporating the Farmwall produce into a new fresh salad bar in the Aspire café, with the salads charged on weight, so students can order as much as they can afford.

"Everyone should be able to access nutritious food and we're trying to think outside the box with how we can do this," Lars said.

"We've had our whole chef team up here tasting and testing the produce and tweaking our menus to take advantage of what we're growing, it's all about using what we have, being more sustainable and less wasteful."

Minimising waste is a key motivation for Farmwall cofounder, Geert Hendrix.

"If we grow our food in coherence with natural ecosystems and implement this mindset in designing our living spaces, we create a beautiful, healthier environment for ourselves, as well as solving major issues that cause climate change and pollution."

The relatively small Farmwall packs a sustainability punch - reducing food miles, food waste, pesticide and herbicide usage, water and energy costs, and deforestation.

Microgreens are 40 times more nutritious than their fully grown variants

And it's this small but mighty impact that Professor Charlton and Dr McMahon want to replicate on a bigger scale across campus. They've recently installed a small indoor community garden in the shared kitchen space in their office, while plans are underway to revitalise the Pulse community garden on campus.

"Our goal is always going to be improving food production methods and making it easier for people to choose a more healthy diet that has the least environmental impact ," Professor Charlton said.

"The concept of edible campuses has not really taken off in Australia as it has in the US and Canada, but we need to consider how our campus can become a 'living lab' for students to explore different ways of growing food and learning life skills for a more sustainable future.

The unassuming heroes of the Farmwall aquaponics system... tropical fish

"The food system needs future engineers, dietitians, nutrition scientists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, business experts and social scientists, amongst others, with the mindset to drive change.

"I'd love to see the entire UOW community get behind this initiative and show the way forward – food affects us all so we need to ensure there is going to be enough, for everyone."


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