Student Affairs News

Dining Services' Aquaponics Cultivates Sustainable Produce

Department: Dining Services



It is hard for an indoor aquaponics system to be discrete, especially when it is home to thriving vegetables and fish. However, even at 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide, the system is right at home in Southside Café dining center at Washington State University.

“We saw this technology being used in different ways at other universities and we began to explore how this could be used here to highlight our efforts to support different kinds of sustainable food production,” said Sarah Larson, Associate Director of WSU Dining Services. “It is an overall priority for us to model responsible sourcing.”

Aquaponics is the combination of “aquaculture,” raising fish, and “hydroponics,” growing plants without soil. Waste from freshwater fish feeds the plants through a hydroponic system. Bacteria break down the waste products into fertilizer, which the plants then consume. The system then recirculates the filtered water back to the fish.

Aquaponics systems are scalable and can grow produce year round without soil. There is no need for weeding and water usage is minimal. Depending on their location, systems can also reduce the amount of transportation necessary between grower and consumer.


It started with an herb garden

Dining Services’ aquaponics program did not start with aquaponics, but with an herb garden, which sprang to life in June 2010. The project was in response to WSU students’ ongoing request for local, sustainable foods to be served in the dining centers combined with a university-wide effort to increase sustainability in campus operations. Now, as students enter Southside Café, they see a small garden that provides chefs with a variety of fresh herbs.

However, the herb garden was a seasonal feature and in the northern climate of Pullman, Wash., unusable in the winter months. In August 2015, Gary Coyle, Director of Dining Services and Larson worked with Jake Frazier and Eric Wegner to build an aquaponics demonstration system in the Northside Café dining center. The system could function year round to provide herbs and greens. In March 2016, the system moved to its new home in the Southside Café complete with modifications and new plants.


The ripple effects

While the system provides a variety of herbs and greens to the kitchen in Southside Café, its footprint remains small and cannot meet 100 percent of the demand. However, the system continues to have an important educational impact on both students and visitors at Southside Café as well as raising awareness around Dining Services’ ongoing efforts to source sustainable ingredients.

“While students are here as undergraduates, there is a window to really broaden their thinking about a lot of things. We are showing them a new, innovative way of food production that they can study while they are eating,” Wegner said. Wegner, who has had a long-time interest with aquaponics, was instrumental in designing the Northside Café aquaponics system and later modifying it to fit in Southside.  

Coyle also noted that the system was very popular during a recent state convention hosting high school age National FFA Organization members. “They were taking pictures and learning about how the system worked. It intrigues people,” Coyle said.

The system also serves as a catalyst for a long-term endeavor to increase sustainability at WSU as well as shines a light on Dining Services’ mission. “The students can see our commitment to sustainability. It’s not just a word on a poster. Students are able to see it in practice and they can say, ‘Hey, here it is on my plate,’” Coyle said.


The potential for growth

Universities around the country are implementing gardens, green houses, aquaponics and hydroponics into their campuses as a means to cultivate ingredients as well as educate students. Each solution is as unique as the universities that implement them and depend on the amount of resources available.

For those looking to develop an aquaponics program, Coyle, Wegner and Frazier all give similar advice: start small. “There is definitely a learning curve involved with this,” said Wegner. Frazier concurs. “It’s good to make mistakes when you are not as heavily invested because you will make mistakes no matter what,” he said.

However, no specialized equipment is necessary to create a small aquaponics system. The majority of materials necessary can be acquired at a hardware store. The Southside system occupies roughly 60 square feet near a window. Frazier stresses that aquaponics systems can be as small as an average window and as large a skyscraper, depending on available space.

“I think this system presents a solution for not just WSU but for the world. Ultimately, we really want this to grow,” said Frazier with a laugh.

Clearly, no pun intended.

To learn more about WSU Dining Services and its commitment to sustainability, visit