Nestled between buildings on the north side of campus stands an unassuming but important piece of the campus dining puzzle — the UofA’s very own Freight Farm.
Inside the Chartwells Freight Farm, an indoor, hydroponic produce garden housed in an old shipping container, Chartwells intern Janeth Jaen is taking the phrase farm-to-table to a new level. What sets this farm’s distribution system apart from others around the city is that it has no need for fueled transportation — Jaen simply pushes a handcart across campus to get the lettuce where it needs to go.
The hydroponic farm produces around 410 heads of butterhead lettuce each week for the salad restaurant Where the Wild Greens AR, which has two locations on campus, Jaen said. The restaurant also provides other lettuce options not grown on campus, for those not keen on butterhead.
To nurture the Freight Farm’s lettuce, Jaen spends her time watering, harvesting and controlling the indoor climate using a control panel inside the upcycled shipping container.
“The Freight Farm is a controlled environment,” Jaen said. “It can control everything with software. There are all these solutions, nutrients, and water running every day and you have to calibrate those things. It’s just doing those tasks every week and making sure that farm is providing as it should.”
Growing the lettuce on campus is important because if people walk by the Freight Farm, it might pique their interest so that they are more likely to try dining options serving the farm-to-table produce, Jaen said.
“Lettuce is one of those ingredients that people that want to be more healthy are always looking for, and having a good amount of lettuce also helps the whole campus to see that there is enough for everyone,” she said. “If you are constantly seeing the lettuce and that it is grown here, I feel like that is exciting for people.”
Where the Wild Greens AR is one of few restaurants on campus that provides vegan and vegetarian options for students and faculty, and is a frequent stop for senior Caroline Wagner, a vegan student.
Eating at the same place three to four times a week has taken a toll on Wagner as someone who has dietary restrictions and is looking for more diverse menu options, she said.
“Food is not only nourishing to your body, but it’s also an enjoyable experience, and I think that when you walk in and see the same chicken tenders three days in a row and the same soggy squash and zucchini, that is a bummer to eat,” Wagner said.
Wagner thinks students should be able to feel a sense of belonging while visiting dining locations on campus, especially those with food allergies who have never experienced campus dining before, she said.
This is where Ashton Julian, the university’s director of nutrition and wellness steps in. Julian’s role is to provide support to students with food allergies and dietary restrictions. A lot of the time, students are unaware of what the campus can provide in terms of food resources, she said.
“We really encourage students to speak out if they do have specific dietary needs, and my job is to meet with them one-on-one and make sure that we’re providing the tools and resources so they can be more comfortable dining on campus,” she said.
Julian was hired in late October 2021 and has made it her goal to be accessible to students who have dietary needs, she said. She works on the line at the Green Table, a dining station in 1021 Food Hall whose cooks avoid the eight major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy.
“The goal with that was students would see me there everyday and hopefully be more comfortable coming up to us and voicing their concerns or just getting to know me and hopefully make that transition from eating at home to college a little bit more (smooth),” Julian said.
Despite having restaurants on campus that can accommodate students with dietary restrictions, it can be intimidating for students needing assistance to reach out, Wagner said.
Wagner sometimes feels like an outsider because of her food needs, and she thinks such feelings can present a barrier for students with dietary restrictions or who just want to try plant-based products, especially if they have social anxiety, she said.
For several of Wagner’s meals, she finds herself waiting in a long line to get vegan food, she said. Not everyone has the time or patience for that, and she knows students who were previously vegan or vegetarian and gave up because eating on campus with those restrictions was too challenging, she said.
For students who do not have the option to stop being vegan or vegetarian, it can be difficult to get the food they need in a timely manner and in a healthy way.
“At True Burger, they don’t have the ability to not cook cross-contaminated burgers right now,” Wagner said. “Cross contamination doesn’t violate my ethics but it’s a bummer for people and it does violate some people’s veganism.”
Because cross-contamination is a dealbreaker for some on-campus students, especially those with severe food allergies, they are often forced to depend on Where the Wild Greens AR and the Green Table for their daily dining needs.
“I think that there is a little bit of a stigma around campus dining and dietary restrictions, just from anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard,” Wagner said. “I just feel like there needs to be something to make it feel like you’re not so much of someone that needs to be accommodated, but more like just another option that’s available.”