Student government advocates for sustainable gardening

The Minnesota Student Association is working to educate students about growing vegetables in their own homes with hydroponics.

Michelle Griffith

University of Minnesota students are encouraging one another to grow their own vegetables — not in a greenhouse or on a plot of land, but in their own apartments and dorms. 

The University’s Minnesota Student Association is working to bring vegetables grown in a hydroponic garden, which uses liquid solution rather than soil, to the on-campus food shelf Nutritious U Food Pantry. By promoting hydroponic-grown vegetables, MSA is educating students about hydroponics sustainability in an effort to reduce food insecurity. 

“Our ultimate goal is to get this produce [to the Nutritious U Food Pantry and] also educate students who come to the pantry [about] what we are doing and hopefully offer them a chance to get involved,” said Sai Powar, director of MSA’s sustainability committee, the group spearheading the project.

The committee hopes to begin planting the vegetables at a St. Paul campus greenhouse by the end of January, with the first round of vegetables grown by the end of March. Because the project is in its beginning stages, MSA is starting with lettuce and kale but hopes to plant other leafy greens later. 

The hydroponic system MSA plans to use to grow the vegetables was created by Tom Michaels, a University horticultural professor.

“I developed this system specifically for situations like urban high-rise apartments or condos where people have an outdoor balcony, and in a small footprint,” Michaels said. “Using a very simple approach, they can grow what they would need for a salad a day.”

This hydroponic garden design uses a 10-gallon storage tote, pots with slits for roots to grow, water, a structure to hold the plants upright, seeds and nutrient solution. MSA plans to start with six bins for vegetables, which will produce about 10 to 12 pounds of lettuce and kale every month after initial harvest for the Nutritious U Food Pantry, said first-year student Priscilla Trinh, who proposed the project.

“Growing food is not just a [College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Science] thing. “It’s not just a farmer’s job,” Trinh said.

In terms of agriculture, sustainability consists of three aspects: environmental preservation, maintaining food supply and equal access to food within a community, Michaels said.

More than 17 percent of the University’s Twin Cities students worry whether they will have enough food to support themselves before they are able to buy more, according to Boynton Health’s 2018 College Student Health Survey. 

In addition to its simplicity, hydroponic gardens are low maintenance because you do not have to worry about weeds or watering the plants often. 

“You can go away for one week and even two weeks and the plants are going to be okay,” Michaels said. 

MSA students are planning to attend Nutritious U Food Pantry distribution days next semester to inform students about hydroponic gardening, Powar said. They also plan to survey students to get feedback on how to move forward with the project. 

Powar and Trinh said their ideal long-term goal would be to have students growing their own food as a normal, achievable practice. 

Correction: The print version of this article states the garden would produce vegetables every three months. It will take two months for the plants to full grow and after the first harvest the group will give vegetables to the Nutritious U Food Pantry every month.