Data collected from the last Hope survey conducted before COVID-19 hit the US indicated that 30 percent of college students experienced food insecurity at some point. In the 2020 Hope survey, 38 percent of two-year and 29 percent of four-year college students experienced food insecurity within the last 30 days. That’s a staggering number. Colleges and universities have come up with some unique ways to help combat this growing epidemic. A university gardening program is one of them. In this post, we’ll examine what precisely a university gardening program is, give some examples and provide the first few steps you can take to start one at your school.
What Is a University Gardening Program?
A university gardening program is a vegetable and/or fruit garden established on college campuses. Yields go directly to those students who identify as food insecure. Any leftovers are sent to the college or local food pantry, given to the program volunteers, or composted.
Why are University Gardening Programs Important?
Food insecurity is a huge problem college students face today. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 4-H, and food pantries are powerful weapons against hunger, but one size does not fit all. College students need other options. “There is a huge need, not only for food but for healthy food—and that’s what we’re providing through … organic produce that we grow right on site,” says Erik Skall, manager of Grounds and Landscaping Services at California State University, Sacramento.
Healthy eating can be cost-prohibitive. People on a budget buy processed and non-sustainable food because it’s cheap and convenient. It’s also unhealthy and can lead to adverse health effects such as diabetes and heart disease. The food university gardening programs provide isn’t merely free; it’s fresh, healthy, and sustainable. And, growing produce doesn’t cost much. We’ve browsed the vegetable section at Lowe’s or Home Depot and noticed that the plants aren’t costly. A bell pepper plant, for example, is at most five dollars and is ready to be planted. If you think this sounds too time-consuming, you should know that outdoor gardens are relatively easy to maintain, provided you know a little about the local climate and what plants grow well in the area.
University garden programs offer inexpensive (for both the student and the university) healthy food options and a way for students to get involved in how their food is grown and prepared.
Just like one size does not fit all when it comes to addressing the issue of food insecurity, one size does not fit all when it comes to university garden programs. Below are a few examples of university garden programs at different college campuses across the United States.
California State University, Bakersfield, located roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles, has a state-of-the-art “edible garden” and a pop-up farm stand on campus where students can get fresh fruits and vegetables for free. The university also provides a cookbook containing recipes for the current season’s produce and an online cooking demo using the garden’s harvest.
The George Mason Potomac Heights Vegetable Garden, located in Fairfax, Virginia, donates its harvest to garden volunteers and local food banks. Recently, the garden program has been expanded to provide free vegetables to the college dining hall. Since 2010, one year after its formation, over 300 pounds of food have been donated to community members.
The goal of the garden program at the University of Minnesota Morris in Morris, Minnesota, is to provide fresh produce for its students and bring awareness to the American Indian culture. The garden grows traditional American Indian produce such as corn, beans, and squash. Since the adoption of the gardening program, erosion has slowed due to decreased tilling, the amount of pollution has decreased because there’s no need for vehicles to transport the produce, and pesticide usage has decreased in the surrounding area.
How do I Start a University Gardening Program?
As evidenced above, there are many different types of university gardening programs. The steps you’ll need to take to start one are similar, no matter which type you’d like to implement.
The first and most crucial step is figuring out where your funding will come from and a rough estimate of how much money you will need. Make sure your school is on board with your idea and willing to commit financially to the garden.
Next, determine who your volunteers will be and ask them to get the word out to friends and family about the program. Word of mouth is a great way to spread awareness!
Third, locate a plot of land you believe would be a good size. Think of some of the plants you would like to grow and do research to figure out the amount of space they need. Determine if planter boxes or planting in the ground is best for your program. Ensure your selected area can accommodate water (such as access to a hose or other water source).
The final first step is to develop a rough plan of what the university garden program will look like in the future. Who is in charge? Will there be a few leaders with dedicated tasks? What vegetables and fruits will you grow, and how long will it take each one to mature? Asking questions like these and providing quick answers can give you an idea of your garden’s future.
We need to take action and create more university garden programs to fight food insecurity among college students. Garden programs have already been implemented in many universities across the country. Food insecurity affects college students, and we already have the tools to do something about it! There are many ways to do this, including through a non-profit organization such as Student LunchBox. SLB is a Los Angeles-based organization with a mission to fight hunger among college students that partners with universities to distribute food. If you want to support SLB or find out more about its mission, you can visit their website at studentlunchbox.org.
This copy was prepared by Allison Norberg, a volunteer at Student Lunchbox, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting food insecurity among college students.
Edited by Jennifer Wyman