GMU student farmers work at growing food hydroponically

Campus food can have a notorious reputation, but this is not at all the case at George Mason University, where students enjoy delicious greens grown at the campus greenhouse within walking distance of the dining hall. Fresh produce includes flavorful microgreens, lettuce, and herbs. Staff at Mason spoke out on the value of the greenhouse and how they would like to see the program expand after the launch of a new fundraising campaign.

A collaborative community effort between Mason’s Office of Sustainability and Mason Dining brought this project to life, out of desire from students and staff to promote health and sustainable living. Donielle Nolan is an alumnus and a staff member who coordinates the greenhouse. She says it was a longtime dream of hers to run a greenhouse. The program has been in operation for one year now, and already they are seeing big results.

“Every week on Tuesdays we harvest an average 32 pounds of greens,” Nolan says, “Some harvests it can get as high as $750 worth of produce.”

The chefs on campus can’t seem to get enough of the greens as well. “They are always demanding more,” Nolan says, “Devoted chefs like to come in to the greenhouse to see their produce growing, and make requests for day-of harvests for special events. It increases their creativity and inspiration in the kitchen.”

“The greenhouse really embodies what Mason Dining is doing with fresh food,” says Caitlin Lundquist, Mason Dining’s Marketing coordinator, “It’s an excellent tool to connect and engage students and our culinary team with where food comes from, how it is grown, and how it can be produced sustainably.”

On how the greenhouse is sustainable, Danielle Castellano from Mason’s Office of Sustainability says, “This helps Mason to reduce its carbon footprint, or forkprint, due to the fact that fresh greens are grown and delivered 200 feet from door to door, rather than the 1,500 mile average for most food served in the United States."

“Imagine how much gasoline a refrigerated truck takes to transport food,” Nolan added, “We are providing food that does not require any gasoline to be transported. The greens are taken by foot to the kitchen.”

So how does the greenhouse actually operate? Nolan explained that the greenhouse has hydroponic systems, meaning the plants are not using any soil to grow. On the market there are many variations of hydroponic sets including systems that grow various different types of plants or some that even support fish production, but the essential components of a hydroponic system are the lack of soil and the of use nutrient water. This program decided on a hydroponic design because of the ability to control for food safety and the ability to grow food throughout all four seasons in the warmth of the greenhouse.

The greenhouse also provides an incredible learning opportunity for students and community members who volunteer. Anyone from any experience level is welcome to walk in during regular weekly hours to volunteer to gain hands-on training for how to grow and harvest food. Nolan offers tours to community members frequently and always works in an engaging biology lesson.

“When we harvest it’s important to know some basics of botany, or plant science” Nolan says, “For example, meristem is the term for the stems on the plants that are rapidly reproducing, similar to stem cells. I always tell my volunteers to leave a few meristems on the plant, because this is what will grow back for next week’s harvest.”

Nolan and her team of students enact scientific techniques daily as well through trial and error for problem solving, and diligent data collection on harvests, pH levels, and other factors. She noted that there is room for student research projects involving the greenhouse.

“This program educates and empowers students to participate as both a producer and a consumer in this process which has shown to be an extremely transformative experience for them,” Castellano says.

“It’s a fun way to gain work experience and learn useful leadership skills,” Nolan says, “I’ve heard students say that it creates a sense of community and is a great way to escape the busy student life and enjoy some peace.”

The greenhouse fundraiser is being launched to support a future expansion of the greenhouse to increase food production as well as grow the number of academic opportunities possible. Interested community members can donate. Simply visit GIVE.GMU.EDU and select “other,” then “Presidents Park Greenhouse” as the allocation of your gift.

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