GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Urban agriculture can provide healthy, local food in more populated areas through home vegetable gardens, farmer’s markets, backyard poultry, and other production methods. This growing trend has extended to the University of Florida’s Gator Dining Services in a partnership with the Field & Fork Campus Food Program.
By using LA Urban Farms’ aeroponic Tower Gardens®, Gator Dining Services is exploring how to do food production in or around the dining halls. The vertical towers pump water through the center to bathe plant roots as plants grow in small pots. The design is meant to be space, energy and water efficient. The towers were donated by LA Urban Farms, a Gator-owned business, to the Field & Fork Farm and Gardens for a class in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) in spring 2018.
“It’s using campus as a living laboratory and collaborating with UF and industry partners,” said Anna Prizzia, director of Field & Fork. “We’re meeting an educational need while exploring the potential of a long-term project.”
Gator Dining Services visitors can see the aeroponic Tower Gardens® now. Four towers are installed at the following locations: one at Fresh Food Company (near Broward Hall), one at Gator Corner Dining Center (near North Hall) and two at the Otis Hawkins Center near Pugh Hall. The herbs and leafy greens will be donated to the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry.
“Since this is a new project, we plan on seeing how the summer goes before making future plans,” said Kayla Caselli-Bido, sustainability manager for Gator Dining Services. “Growing food in the aeroponic towers exemplifies Gator Dining Services’ responsible sourcing and waste minimization pillars as part of our Green Thread sustainability platform.”
Before graduating in 2018 from CALS as an animal sciences major, Caselli-Bido interned with Field & Fork for a year and a half. Growing up in the suburbs of Miami, Florida, Caselli-Bido said her hands-on experience with agriculture came from the Field & Fork Campus Food Program. In addition to her internship, she took an Urban Agriculture and Food Systems experiential learning course based at the Field & Fork Farm and Gardens. These opportunities positioned her well for her current role at Gator Dining Services.
“Without Field & Fork, I would not have found my passion for agriculture and sustainability,” Caselli-Bido said.
The aeroponic towers project has provided an additional internship experience for a CALS student. Garrett Noonan, a senior plant science major, came to UF after serving 13 years in the U.S. Army.
“In my experiences in all the countries I visited, I saw how food security was used as a political weapon,” Noonan said. “This had a profound effect on me as a soldier. What I saw first-hand pushed me to choose this career path in sustainable crop production.”
As an intern with Field & Fork and Gator Dining Services, Noonan conducts basic maintenance on the aeroponic towers. His tasks include measuring the growth rate of plants, refilling the tower with water, checking for insects and collecting data to help Gator Dining Services assess the long-term viability of the towers.
“I’m most excited for the future that this project could bring as far as fundamentally changing the way we grow food,” Noonan said. “These kinds of innovations can change the landscape of agriculture.”
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.