Founders wheeled out its first hydroponics garden on Feb. 22 which will provide organic food to supplement students’ meals.
Hydroponics is a system of farming that uses water very efficiently to deliver a majority of the nutrients that plants need without soil.
Founders started this project as a way to gain a closer connection to growing food that it could use in its dishes. Eric Boarini, Bon Appetit head chef at Mills, created the project for Founders with the help of campus staff when he saw a picture of a hydroponics system online.
“It’s not all the time that you get to actually work with the stuff that you’re growing,” Boarini said. “In the kitchen, we have such a detachment from what we’re growing, what we’re eating and cooking.”
Arianna Contreras, Founders’ catering manager, is one of the people who helped Boarini build the garden and who currently maintains it — wheeling it into the sun on the back porch in the morning and back inside at night. She believes that this will provide an example for other branches of Bon Appetit and how accessible it is for a hydroponic to grow food.
“This would be a great way to show students how easy it is to grow your own crops,” Contreras said.
The hydroponics system at Founders has four tiers that hold six plants each: currently herbs, peppers and succulents. Each are potted with aerated stone pellets that are similar to pumice. This helps reduce the chance of mold, or insect eggs, that using soil brings and is friendlier to the hydroponics system.
One tube snakes up the back of the structure and then loops back down, sending water through each tier. The water then arrives at the base where it is aerated, and where the organic fertilizer — which holds all the necessary nutrients for the plants — is measured in.
Boarini hopes to use the food produced from this venture as garnish, supplements to parts of different meals or ingredients when needed in a pinch. For right now, he wants it to stand as a sign of Founders’ dedication to healthy eating.
“It’s not just something that comes in a bag on a truck every morning; it’s something that grows somewhere. People need to take care of it,” Boarini said. “We wanted students to be able to see it and appreciate that we’re trying to keep that distance between the farm and the food we eat as small as possible.”
This is not the only water system at Mills. There is currently an aquaponics system on campus, and possibly another one in the future for the Urban Farm. Aquaponics is a symbiotic relationship that uses fish to produce the fertilizer and the plants to filter the water for the fish.
Biology major Kate Kolden was one of the people who started the aquaponics system in the greenhouse in 2014 and is currently maintaining it. She is working on gathering data to determine whether hydroponics is viable on a larger scale.
“It’s incredibly efficient,” Kolden said. “One of the things I think they should be used for, especially in a food desert like Oakland, is producing food on school campuses.”
Contreras said that she hopes to wheel the garden out into Founders on rainy days for students to view how Bon Appétit is dedicated to producing quality food.
“We’re with this sustainability movement,” Contreras said.