5 April 2024

Farmwall delivers sustainability plus food security for cash-strapped uni students

| Kate Mayhew
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Two women in front of plants.

UOW’s Professor Karen Charlton and Dr Anne McMahon in front of the Farmwall aquaponics system at the Aspire cafe. Photos: UOW.

At the base of Building 67 on the University of Wollongong’s campus lies a bustling food court. The hum of conversation rises and falls throughout the day as staff and students come and go, many blissfully unaware they’re being watched by some new residents. Slimy ones. Tropical fish.

These are the silent heroes of a Farmwall aquaponics system that has recently found its home at the Aspire cafe, quietly working to introduce the concept of how a circular economy can help achieve environmental sustainability and address food insecurity on campus.

The Farmwall is hard to miss; beautiful microgreens burst from several layers of vertical shelves, showcasing urban farming at its best. The aquaponics system works like a natural ecosystem.

The nutrient-rich water from the fish in the bottom is used to grow the plants in the Farmwall, where good bacteria breaks down the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrates. Plant roots clean and filter the water before it flows back into the fish tank and the cycle begins again.

The introduction of growing microgreens and urban farming at UOW is a joint labour of love for Professor Karen Charlton and Dr Anne McMahon, both from the School of Medical, Indigenous and Health Sciences. The accredited practising dieticians are deeply passionate about food quality, affordability and sustainability for students and staff.

Prof Charlton has always been interested in Australia’s food system and production methods. In 2022 she was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship for a project to create a more local, sustainable, healthy and equitable food system in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven region.

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“Urgent action is needed to reduce the environmental impact of the food system in Australia,” Prof Charlton says.

“Current food production methods and the long supply chain of many items, along with dietary choices are unsustainable in ensuring supply and supporting human and planetary health. What is needed is a more local approach to food systems and livelihoods, and a closer connection of people to where their food is grown.”

Adding to the sense of urgency, Prof Charlton feels, is the food insecurity felt by many students and staff on the UOW campus, a problem she says is growing every day as the cost of living soars.

“There is no hiding behind this serious issue and recent research our team has conducted found that one in two students (54 per cent) had experienced some level of food insecurity in the previous year,” Prof Charlton said.

“We surveyed 197 students in 2022. Of concern was that one in five students were classified as having severe food insecurity, meaning that they would go without food for an entire day. Not surprisingly, the quality of students’ diets was poor, with little access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

“It’s not uncommon for students to face different financial pressures when they’re at university, but we’re finding that more and more students’ diets are suffering because they can’t afford good quality and nutritious food.”

Dr McMahon was awarded a Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health research grant in 2023. She is using this funding to focus her attention on healthy food sustainability practices to enhance food and nutrition security.

“We were really excited to start working with the team at Farmwall to get the aquaponic system set up,” says Dr McMahon.

“The idea is to use this Farmwall as a model for what we could do on a greater scale across campus. We would love to grow some of the baby plants out and use them in a larger community garden, with the ultimate goal of developing a circular fresh food system here at UOW.”

The researchers have also joined forces with UOW Pulse, who are using the Farmwall produce in the Pulse Pantry, Unibar, Aspire cafe and catering services on campus.

Pulse Pantry is a free food support system available to current UOW students who are feeling the impact of financial hardships. Products within the pantry are displayed on shelves, and their values are represented as points instead of dollars.

For Lars Oddershede, the Farmwall project is one he’d like to see take off. The UOW Pulse Food and Beverage General Manager has a background in food production and development and says he’d love to see a sustainable food supply chain on campus.

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“We know the cost of living is high and we know students are finding it tough and we’re exploring ways to make sure all students can have access to fresh and healthy food,” Lars said.

One way that UOW Pulse has done this is by incorporating the Farmwall produce into a new fresh salad bar in the Aspire cafe, with the salads charged on weight, so students can order as much as they can afford.

“Everyone should be able to access nutritious food and we’re trying to think outside the box with how we can do this,” Lars said.

The relatively small Farmwall packs a sustainability punch – reducing food miles, food waste, pesticide and herbicide usage, water and energy costs, and deforestation.

And it’s this small but mighty impact that Professor Charlton and Dr McMahon want to replicate on a bigger scale across campus.

“The concept of edible campuses has not really taken off in Australia as it has in the US and Canada, but we need to consider how our campus can become a ‘living lab’ for students to explore different ways of growing food and learning life skills for a more sustainable future,” Prof Charlton said.

“I’d love to see the entire UOW community get behind this initiative and show the way forward – food affects us all so we need to ensure there is going to be enough for everyone.”

This edited story can be read in full at UOW’s The Stand.

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