Auburn University aquaponics project supplying fresh food for campus dining

Published: February 08, 2017
Updated: June 21, 2017
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On-campus dining has come a long way since the days of mystery meat and stale pizza. Students today enjoy options that can easily rival restaurant-quality meals. A new initiative at Auburn University is taking campus dining to a new level, using a farm-to-table approach to feed the bodies and minds of students.

The aquaponics project–a collaborative effort among the E.W. Shell Fisheries, the College of Agriculture's Department of Horticulture and the Food Systems Institute–gives students a hands-on educational experience while providing Campus Dining with locally grown food to serve up some of the freshest meals in town.

At Auburn, the aquaponics project starts at Fisheries – a 1,600-acre space that includes natural habitats for research, education and outreach in aquaculture, fisheries management and aquatic sciences. There, an above-ground pond holds approximately 7,400 tilapia that are fed nitrate-rich food. The discharged water is used to supply nutrients to plants like cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes as part of the project, and Campus Dining serves the produce in dining locations across campus.

"Dining's role is that we're the beneficiary," said Glenn Loughridge, director of Campus Dining. "We are very fortunate to be able to access some of the healthiest foods that you can possibly have."

Because the foods are served within days of being picked from the vine, consumers are eating a product that is more nutritious than something they might buy from a grocery store.

"A lot of the nutrients like vitamin C that you can find in the peppers and cucumbers can decrease over time," explained Kacie DeLong, graduate student in nutrition. "The fresher the fruits and vegetables are, the faster they can get to you, the higher the nutrient quantity is going to be."

DeLong said that when produce has to travel long distances, it is often picked before it is ripe so it can ripen along transit. The aquaponics project allows Auburn to pick produce at peak ripeness, giving it a better flavor and higher nutrient quantity while also making the nutrients more bioavailable.

"Bioavailability describes how easily your body can absorb the nutrients found in the food," DeLong said. "So if there's a higher quantity and it's fresher, it's a lot easier for the body to absorb."

The tilapia is also harvested and served on campus, which meets one of the project's goals to maximize efficiency and reduce waste.

Daniel Wells, associate professor of horticulture, has played a key role in maintaining and improving upon the project that was established on campus a decade ago.

"What we want to do, instead of having a circular system where water goes from the fish to the plants to the fish to the plants and so on, is have more of a linear system. You take the same amount of water and use it on as many plants as possible so at the end you have very little left," he explained.

When water goes from the fish pond to the greenhouse, the plants receive the nutrients they need and the remaining water is collected and run through pipes to the additional vegetables outside the greenhouse. The last step in the linear process is growing algae for water purification.

"We're trying to take a commercial approach," Wells said. "It's really all about scaling. If we can get more greenhouses, we can grow more produce using the same linear setup. We're already paying for the nutrients for the fish so we're maximizing production. With the amount of fish production we have, we need a lot more plant production to get rid of our waste."

Those working on the aquaponics project have made food safety a top priority. Auburn's Food Systems Institute is part of the collaboration to ensure that everything being grown is safe to eat.

That research includes testing the water by collecting it when it comes into the fish tank, and then measuring it again after it goes out of the fish tank and into the pots of plants, and then measuring the stems of the plants and the fruits when they begin growing.

The final product of the project–the food–is popular at dining locations on campus, including API Trading Co. in the Student Center, where Executive Chef Chris Cox prepares tilapia and serves vegetables on a regular basis.

"The cucumbers we get from the aquaponics project are better than we could get elsewhere," Cox said. "The skins are better, the taste is better."

Loughridge, who is one of the biggest supporters of the project, said selling fresh products resonates with students and faculty, so he's willing to continue serving whatever produce can be grown through the aquaponics initiative.

"This is one of those great times where everybody wins," Loughridge said. "We're getting production of food that we're going to utilize, students and faculty and staff are doing research that produces this so at the end of the day we all benefit."

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