It Takes a Shipping Container to Feed a Campus

Students will grow up to 1,200 heads of healthy greens a week in an upcycled box at New York’s State University at Stony Brook.

(Photo: Facebook)

Sep 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Students advocating for local, sustainably grown food to be served on campus may soon have a surprising new tool to leverage—one more commonly found at industrial sites than on verdant farms. That is, they will if a pilot project at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to grow hydroponic lettuce in an upcycled shipping container proves successful.

The “Leafy Green Machine,” as the farm is called, was installed on the campus in late August. Now that students are back for the fall session at the school, located about an hour east of New York City, they’re getting the farm up and running. It’s suprisingly simple: No soil is required, and the environmental controls and ultraefficient ultraviolet LED lighting are a snap to set up. Once fully functional, the machine will be capable of growing up to 1,200 heads of lettuce a week. As the first shipping container farm at a university to supply campus dining halls, it will be a realization of the farm-to-table ethos.

The container is the creation of Freight Farms, a business started in 2010 to make products and services that make urban farming easier. The Stony Brook project brings Freight Farms full circle, as the company has its roots in a college project.

“We started in an abandoned parking lot at my school [Clark University] while I was a student there just a couple years ago,” Brad McNamara, a cofounder of Freight Farms, told The Statesman. “We convinced them to let us use the parking space, and we put a container there and built our prototype. We were growing stuff and including my friends and putting some [product] in the cafeteria. It’s good to see it come full circle and get back to the campus.”

The demand from students for locally grown produce is real. Thirty colleges across the U.S. have signed onto the Real Food Challenge, “which means that the school has pledged to commit to sourcing locally at least 20 percent of the food served on campus by 2020, and countless more student groups are urging their campuses to source locally without the RFC,” according to the Freight Farms blog.

Administrators seem thrilled that students will be able to eat locally grown crops while also gaining some agricultural knowledge. The farm “will offer experiential learning outside of the classroom and will prepare students for the future,” James O’Connor, the director of sustainability and transportation operations at Stony Brook, said in a statement. “The introduction of the technology will not only help reinforce our ongoing sustainability efforts but will also encourage and inspire students to be more sustainable.”

By not using soil, hydroponic farming uses 90 percent less water than a traditional farm. Because it’s not subject to the variances of weather—the shipping containers are insulated so well that not even the cold blasts of an Arctic vortex can penetrate them—produce can be grown year-round. The students hope to have their first harvest of lettuce available for Stony Brook’s dining halls by early October. “Ideally, if it’s a success, maybe we can add to it by bringing more Freight Farms here,” O’Connor told The Statesman.