New hydroponic food court at Virginia Tech brings new meaning to fresh

BLACKSBURG, Va. – One dining hall at Virginia Tech is bringing a new meaning to fresh. The program centers on a gardening system that’s growing in popularity: hydroponics.

Students who eat at Owens Dining Hall aren’t just eating food that’s grown locally, they’re eating produce that’s grown inside of the dining hall’s food court.

The vegetables and herbs are grown in the hydroponic systems, which hang on either side of the Farms & Fields restaurant in the dining hall.

Each system is three to four feet tall and two feet wide. They work by slowly dripping water into the root systems of the plants, eliminating the need for fertile soil. 

Because of the way this system works, hydroponic produce can be grown and harvested year-round, making it easier to incorporate into the meals served alongside the eye-catching gardens.

“As much and as often as we can harvest the produce,” says Lauren Snelson the assistant director at Owens Dining Center. “We put it into the entrees and salads that come out of the shop and on the paninis and things like that.”

The systems are currently growing two types of basil, parsley and swiss chard—all produce proven to grow extremely well in a hydroponics system.

“We’re really trying to grow things that respond well to the direct sunlight,” says Kyle Brolis the assistant farm manager. “Cool to warm season crops can do well as long as they’re leafy.”

When the hydroponic gardens were first put up back in the fall, many students say they stopped by the restaurant out of curiosity. Now, they look forward to coming back day after day for the fresh produce.

“Students are getting to see and engage and learn from hydroponics,” says Gweneth Manser, the sustainability manager for Dining Services and Housing and Residence Life. “It’s not something you get to see every day. Having students see it in the unit, and interact with it, and watch the plants grow, then eat the produce -- it’s really powerful.”

It’s a program the university is now working to grow. Snelson says she’d like to see a mobile hydroponics system that can be moved around within the dining hall. She says it would give students a chance to get hands-on with how it all works.

Snelson says the program could eventually extend to other restaurants and dining halls on campus.

“We definitely want to see it expand for sure,” says Snelson. “We have a new dining unit coming on in the next two to three years and we’d like to see hydroponics in there as well. There are a lot of big goals and big dreams for hydroponics and this is just the start to it.”

So far, there’s no set time or deadline for an expansion.

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