Campus Gardens Make Dining a Fresh Experience

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College Community Gardens, University of South Carolina in Columbia.
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What began in 1991 as a demonstration food garden at Ecology Park in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, is now a five-acre showcase of ecological landscaping.

When the University of Montana opened the gates to its new 7,500-square-foot garden this past spring, it joined a growing number of colleges with campus gardens. These student gardens help turn a younger generation on to the joy of growing their own food, offer educational opportunities, and provide for more healthful food choices in campus dining halls.

More than 100 U.S. universities now have a garden, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, based in Denver. Some campus gardens, like the one at UM located in rural Montana, can be seen as an obvious part of college life. Others, like gardens at New York University in Manhattan and The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., are a welcome surprise to students who plan to spend their college years in a big city.

The benefits of these campus gardens are numerous and include teaching the financial advantages of self-sustainable living, giving students the satisfaction that comes from growing their own food, and promoting health and wellness by supplying natural unprocessed foods sorely lacking in what is considered the normal college diet.

Some students, like those attending the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, use the student garden as a way to give back to the community by donating food to local low-income families. In addition, gardens can offer storm water control and a way to cut disposal costs and recycle waste from the cafeteria by turning it into compost.

Even a small garden offers boundless research opportunities to further the education of all students no matter their area of study. Engineering majors can find ways to harvest rainwater. Environmental planning students can learn about sustainable food production.

In Montana, student gardener Laura Ginsburg explains her role as being “involved organically managing the garden, planting seeds and starts, managing pests, watering and planting perennial shrubs and trees. The challenges of establishing a new garden kept me on my toes and gave me an education in gardening in Montana. It was really satisfying to harvest in the morning and see it being consumed in the cafeteria at lunch.”

Many of these campus gardens have been started with the help of the Farm to College program, which was created to bring together universities in need of a steady food supply and local farmers who are able to provide that food. In 2003 at UM, the Farm to College program committed to buying more local food to feed campus residents, which it continues to do since the garden is too small to provide all the food necessary to feed students and faculty. Ian Finch, the Farm to College coordinator, defines the program as a “local food purchasing initiative, which drives and supports agricultural economic development.”

The benefits don’t stop at harvest time. Students and faculty can enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, and the satisfaction of eating food that only traveled a few feet from the soil it was grown in to a cafeteria tray. Some schools are working with the companies that run dining services to bring the food from the garden to the campus cafeterias, although there are obstacles.

UM is unique since the garden was first conceived by Mark LoParco, the director of dining services. “What makes us different is that we are a self-operated university food service, not a contract company. We needed no convincing as we are always committed to doing what our students want,” he says.

LoParco and Finch work hard to be sure students are aware that the fruits, vegetables and herbs they are eating come from soil right outside the dining room’s window. Food from the garden is carefully tracked so labels can be placed in the cafeteria lines alerting the students that what they are eating came from the campus garden.

Laura Ginsburg says, “Even if people don’t want to be involved directly in agriculture, it gives them visual clues to what food production looks like, and possibly will encourage people to think more about the food they consume.”

After the first year, the success of UM’s garden can be summed up in a few words by Ian Finch, “It’s a big hit!” Students are provided with unique learning opportunities, employees are enjoying the green space, and everyone is relishing the fresh cafeteria fare. LoParco says, “Our garden is a source of pride for the campus community and, of course, my staff loves to cook with and serve homegrown food.”


Farm to College

The University of Montana

New York University

The George Washington University

University of Virginia

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education