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US (VA): George Mason University adopts aquaponics program

On Thursday, April 6, 2023, Mason celebrates Mason Vision Day—an opportunity for the Mason community to come together each year to identify and support a deserving initiative on campus. This year's efforts address campus food insecurity, supporting Mason students who have limited access to sufficient or quality food. Food insecurity on college campuses is a rising, problematic trend that Mason is committed to combating. 

George Mason University Sustainability and the Greenhouse and Gardens Program are contributing to these efforts, promoting healthy eating and helping Mason Patriots achieve food security. One way this team is enhancing food security on campus is through the recent installation of a new aquaponic food system located at the Presidents Park Greenhouse (PPG) on the Fairfax Campus. The PPG is an on-campus site for year-round food production that grows approximately 1,000 lbs. of fresh produce annually.

To support this new initiative, the PPG received generous contributions from Mason Facilities, the Patriot Green Fund, and the Auxiliary Enterprise Management Council. Donielle Nolan, Greenhouse and Gardens program manager, is spearheading this sustainable effort.  

Mason Facilities leadership is proud of the Greenhouse and Gardens program and its contributions to campus food security and education. "Our greenhouse is an incredible asset to the campus community," said Greg Farley, director of University Sustainability. "It is very unusual for a university to grow—and serve—fresh produce to campus. We work hard to contribute to student food security and to teach Patriots of all ages how to grow and prepare fresh, nutritious foods. That makes Mason unique."  

Nolan's newest staff members include 15 goldfish that grow plants organically, without the use of soil, creating a fertilized environment for many of University Sustainability's greens. In the aquaponic system, the fish produce waste that nitrifying bacteria and then convert it into nutrients for the plants. The plant roots absorb these nutrients and, in doing so, filter the water so it can be safely recirculated back to the fish.

The aquaponics system includes a 200-gallon fish tank and three grow beds for the plants—producing harvestable, donation-ready items, including vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs.

The Greenhouse and Gardens Program partners with the Patriot Pantry, a university program that provides food-insecure students access to nonperishable food and hygiene items and raises awareness about food insecurity within the Mason student population. The pantry is housed under the Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) in the Division of University Life. The Patriot Pantry serves hundreds of students every semester. The Greenhouse and Gardens Program helps fill the gap by providing free fresh produce for those who are food insecure via the Greenhouse and Gardens Program online portal. Donations include but are not limited to tomatoes, lettuce, kale, bok choy, and soon strawberries.

In order to grow and harvest the produce, the PPG relies heavily on its volunteers. Anyone can gain hands-on experience with both hydroponic and aquaponic systems while volunteering. Inside the greenhouse, participants can learn how to compost indoors with worms, harvest crops, sow, and transplant seedlings, solve pest issues using natural organic methods, and support a thriving farm-to-table sustainable food operation. Another perk of volunteering is the chance to try the produce grown and take some home, as there is usually a surplus.

"Most of the produce goes to donations for the Patriot Pantry, and when students volunteer, they get to take home harvest-ready produce and herbs," said Nolan. "We are always seeking ways to connect fresh food sources to those in need on campus."  

Another way University Sustainability and the Greenhouse and Gardens Program is addressing food insecurity on Mason's campus through educating students on healthy, sustainable food preparation in the form of on-campus cooking events.  

"Our program educates students about healthy eating to promote overall well-being and sustainability. Many students are hesitant to request or accept healthy, sustainable donations due to limited knowledge regarding preparation and cooking with fresh ingredients," said Nolan. "In addition, many students do not have access to a kitchen in their dorm rooms or do not have the time due to academic course load or employment obligations."  

In November 2022, the program hosted its first cooking event, "Earthsgiving," yielding a large turnout of volunteers and students. Two free, sustainable cooking events are being held in Spring 2023. One in March and one in April to celebrate Earth Month. The March 31 cooking event is a partnership with the Patriot Pantry, Housing and Residence Life, Recreation, and Mason Dining to focus on education in preparing inexpensive meals using commonly featured items from the Patriot Pantry. The cooking event in April 2023 has an international food theme. Keep an eye out on the Earth Month website for details regarding upcoming events. 

"There are so many opportunities to combine the sustainable aspects of food, as well as the food security efforts that are gaining popularity amongst our students," said Nolan. "These events help build community and educate and inspire students to eat more plant-based and home-prepared meals, which both promote environmentally conscious lifestyles as well as an increase in well-being." 


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