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The lobby of Nelson Dining Hall, Feb. 22, 2024, at Ohio University in Athens.

Student Senate initiative aims to put indoor farms in dining halls

Ohio University Student Senate is seeking to put indoor produce farms in campus dining halls. The project is in partnership with indoor garden company Just Vertical and replaces a former initiative to put solar umbrellas on campus.

Hibbs said through Just Vertical, a $10,000 investment would be able to put four walls of indoor farms in campus dining halls to grow fresh produce. He described the indoor farms as walls of see-through glass that can grow up to 48 different plants inside.

Drew Banks, general manager of campus cafes, said Culinary Services has met with Hibbs and Just Verticle about the indoor farms. They are working out many details but the project is gaining momentum.

Senate’s environmental affairs commissioner Caden Hibbs said the Senate received a $5,000 grant at the beginning of the year that was to be put toward the solar umbrellas. However, when the finalized cost for the solar umbrella project resulted in a figure of around $12,000, Hibbs thought to look elsewhere.

“With the cost, we’d have to get another $5,000 grant and then an extra amount through the budget committee,” Hibbs said. “We just felt like that wasn’t something that would impact enough people to justify its costs for our commission.”

Patrick Ladly-Fredeen, a spokesperson for Just Vertical, said this is one of multiple larger-scale projects the company has undertaken in partnership with universities. He also said Just Vertical is “so excited to help contribute to a more sustainable future at OU.”

Hibbs said the indoor farms will require about 20 minutes of work by culinary workers per week to maintain. 

“Students will be able to see what has been put into their food, and they’ll be able to see it being grown right in front of them and then served to them,” Hibbs said. “You’re having students understand how important it is to know where food is coming from and what they’re eating.”

Culinary Services already partners with Athens farmers to source fresh, local produce. Hibbs said the Just Vertical project would not impact this partnership and only serve to bring even more fresh produce into the OU dining hall scene.

“It won’t be at any cost to Culinary or the school, it’ll only be a cost to the grant funding that Senate is being awarded,” Hibbs said.

David Rosenthal, an associate professor of plant biology at OU and the adviser for the Student Farmers Club, said he also sees the possibilities of sustainability and educational value in indoor farms.

“As a plant biologist, I’m always interested in new and sustainable ways to grow food, and that’s why we have the student farms,” Rosenthal said. “It’s really all about teaching.”

Rosenthal said the indoor farms may pose a solution to the issue of students living in dorms not having access to fresh produce to cook and use for themselves.

“The obstacle I noticed for a lot of students who are in the dorms, with respect to fresh produce, is that you can’t cook it,” Rosenthal said. “So maybe the question really is, ‘What kind of produce can be grown in these systems that would be most amenable to students in terms of something they can use if they don’t have a kitchen?”

Rosenthal also said the indoor farms may help further supplement produce when produce grown in outdoor farms is out of season.

“A farm can do one thing, but we can’t and we typically don’t grow out of season,” Rosenthal said. “So in any of these challenges when it comes to food systems, different parts of the system will all work together. Getting all your food from one place at one time typically is not possible.”

Hibbs said the project will continue to be monitored and funded by Senate following its implementation by the end of the semester.

“I think a good option is to keep this project as something that is being monitored within the Senate and within the Environmental Affairs Commission,” Hibbs said. “When I move on, I’ll make sure whoever comes after me is knowledgeable about this project.”


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