With all the current discussion around improving school food, university food has been less-covered territory. Sure, it isn’t always funded by the government, but changing the way college students eat is an opportunity for better student health and the local economy. That was the impetus for creating Bon Appetit Management Company’s Comprehensive Student Garden Guide [pdf], a road map to starting, promoting and managing campus vegetable gardens as a force for bringing local produce to the college lunch room — where a campus full of hungry mouths and a budget means buying from student farmers becomes a logical option.
Most college campuses have land to spare — and now as farming has become a focus of interest for students, and willing participants are lining up to volunteer their time planting, weeding and harvesting across the US, there couldn’t be a better time to think about starting a farm on campus. The idea behind the guide was to empower students to harness this momentum, showing step-by-step how to start a campus farm, as well as providing students with resources for seasonal planning, maintaining relationships with buyers, food safety, building community around the garden, and forming composting partnerships so that it continues to thrive.
One of the most successful university farm-to-lunchroom projects is the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which began in 2001 after students began pushing for better food in their lunchrooms. I wrote the director of the project, Melina Shannon-DiPietro, because I wanted to get an idea of what is possible for a student farm, even on a small plot in the northeast, and to ask her how this program has affected the campus community. This is what she had to say:
The farm is one-acre, and the produce grown at the farm is shared with volunteers, sold at farmers market, and tops pizza from our wood-burning hearth oven. In one year, this one acre inspired nearly 30 interns to make 1,500 pizzas in our brick oven, more than 1,300 students to volunteer during afternoon workdays, and more than 300 community members and school children to get their hands dirty. Another 600 students visited the farm for events like a pig roast and a harvest festival. We grow 300 varieties of vegetables, fruit, flowers, and herbs, and we grow in all 4 seasons. One of the most exciting numbers last year is that over 850 students took courses related to food and agriculture. Students are hungry for this work.
The farm is an entry point for students to become involved in other initiatives involving food, agriculture, and the environment. Students talk about how important the Yale Farm is to them as a space to learn with their hands and minds, a place to enjoy long conversations with friends while working, and a place to spend time outdoors and develop a connection to land and food. They also tell us that the Yale Farm is the place where they first connect the dots and understand that the way we live is a political act, an ethical act, and even, today, part of a movement.
Each of these gardens around the nation can teach students what good food means – what tastes good, what’s good for our health, what’s good for farmers and for the land, and what’s good for our communities. These gardens can teach our children to be better learners by opening their senses, to be environmental stewards by connecting them to the land, and to be better citizens by connecting them to community.
Sounds terrific, right? So as the school year begins in this period of new thinking on agriculture, here is a tool that students can use. Besides the vital world of books, an opportunity awaits to get dirty and produce food — right outside of your dorm room. It is a chance to build a community on campus around food, while turning the tide on a corporate-dominated food system that is making us sick.