A Rooted Education
By Alora Nowlin '21
LAS 110: Problem Solving for Sustainability
We once produced three thousand pounds of produce for our own cafeteria, but once we lost grant funding for a garden coordinator and changed leadership in Central Market, suddenly the garden-to-table connection was lost. How might we begin using our own food again in our own cafeteria, I have asked? And until now, no one has taken up the challenge. Alora’s essay tackles this problem with a creative mixture of original interviews and case studies from other colleges or schools with subsistence gardens. I love how she uses research to answer a truly burning question for herself and for our campus community. More than that, I am impressed by how she weaves her own awakening to sustainability issues (her own capacity for change) into her call to action for the college. If she can come to care about the garden, she argues, so can the administration. It is a bold and inspiring argument.
One of the most valuable skills we can learn today is how to live sustainably. This is easier said than done. There is not a class that can teach you how to live sustainably in the course of a single semester, since the resources that are available to us are ever-changing. The things we once seemed oblivious to are now common knowledge, and the needs of each individual are unique according to their environment. Even though we cannot teach a single class on sustainability and expect the student to be prepared for anything that comes after, we can teach them how they can live sustainably in the moment to better adapt in the future. Before coming to Central College, I had no real interest in sustainability. My criteria was strictly monetary and based on the majors offered. So when I first took a tour of the Roe Building, a building honored with a platinum certification by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Global), I wasn’t interested in the lights that dimmed when the sun was shining or the PSA that came over the intercom of a room when the windows were opened when it was too hot or cold outside. To me, sustainability was simply a word that was used in politics in order to guilt people into recycling. What I didn’t know was Central College made a vow to change this naïve idea, and in just five short months, for me, they did.
In recent years, campus gardens and farms have become increasingly popular as sustainability has become a more frequently discussed topic. Many institutions, including everything from elementary schools to universities, have been implementing sustainability education through the form of gardening and farming (Cobb 145). One of the things Central College prides itself on is sustainability education. In addition to sustainable buildings such as Roe, Central College also has a strong focus on sustainability in academics. As a part of the core requirements for graduation, each student must take at least one class that pertains to global sustainability, but there are also many other classes that offer a sustainability focus such as Environmental Ethics, Food Justice, and Principles of Ecology (Global). Even with such a dedicated focus on sustainability, there are still aspects of campus in which Central College has room for improvement. The college garden is one of these areas. Since the garden was founded 15 years ago, it has served many purposes (Global). Currently, the produce that is grown in the garden is donated to a local food pantry, and although this is a great cause, the food pantry has begun their own garden and they are no longer in desperate need of the campus garden’s produce (Campbell). Since there is not a high demand for produce from the garden, the amount of food that is being grown has decreased over the past few years. At its peak, the garden produced around 1,500 pounds of produce; this past year, it was only able to produce about 300 pounds (Campbell). There are many factors that have caused this decrease in production, but the one thing that we can learn from it is that we have a chance to make Central College more sustainable. As an institution that strives to promote and exhibit sustainability, we need to cultivate a garden that can be used to not only teach students about sustainability, but to also make the institution more sustainable by providing produce for Central Market. If my views on sustainability can change in just five months at Central College, imagine what could happen for the garden in the next fifteen years.
Sustainability is not easy, at least when you are first starting. It takes time, dedication, and even money in order to correct old habits. For me, it was reminding myself to use my reusable water bottle instead of taking a plastic bottle from the fridge. For Central College to use garden produce in the cafeteria, a few different steps would need to be taken. The first thing that must be considered is financing the garden; there are many different things that have to be accounted for such as tools, workers, crops, and maintaining equipment. Luckily, the garden is already in use, so there are some start-up costs that can be avoided. When it comes to the Market, Iwan Williams, the director of dining services, says it is run like a business because money is limited (Williams). Typically, the cheapest option is what the Market will choose; however, it is important to note that sometimes the cheapest option comes from what is available at the moment. When analyzing cost, it is cheaper to use a fresh, local tomato than it is to buy a canned sauce (Williams). If we were able to grow large enough batches of tomatoes to process, money could be saved without having to worry about the negative consequences of sourcing processed produce from elsewhere. One way that Warren Wilson College has addressed the issue of the cost difference between self-grown produce and outsourcing is by paying the market-value of the produce to the garden or farm directly (Cobb 170). This exchange allows the two to act as separate entities, and it gives the garden or farm the chance to sustain itself. Similar to Warren Wilson College, Bowdoin College in Maine also assigns a dollar value to the produce they grow, based on the local market for organic produce (Caiazzo). Bowdoin College differs from Warren Wilson in that the funding of the garden comes from the dining services budget, as well as support from the garden club. This means that the garden is an extension of the dining services, but it is managed by separate staff (Caiazzo). Both of these schools provide different models for their garden and dining hall relationship. If the Central College garden and Central Market could establish a more business-like partnership in a similar way to Warren Wilson College or Bowdoin College, it would allow the Central garden to support itself, and therefore be sustainable. In unison with the decreased production of the garden, dining service spending on locally grown produce has also decreased.
A few years ago, $80,000 of the Central College dining services budget went to locally sourced produce. This past year, it was a quarter of that number at only $20,000 going to locally sourced produce.
A few years ago, $80,000 of the Central College dining services budget went to locally sourced produce. This past year, it was a quarter of that number at only $20,000 going to locally sourced produce (Campbell). If we could grow produce in our own garden, we could offer it at a comparable price. Instead of only spending $20,000 on local produce and the rest on out-sourced goods, we would be fostering an in-house relationship between the financial aspect of the dining hall and the sourcing of produce.
Another important thing to keep in mind when discussing finances in an institution is the value of education. As the associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and the director of the Hahn Horticulture Garden at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Holly Scoggins has a lot of experience when it comes to campus gardens. She states that gardens are necessary for teaching students about plants, and “the value of this function cannot be understated” (Scoggins 528). Iwan Williams recognizes this as well; even though dining services has to be run like a business, there also has to be a focus on education. We want to provide students with the best education possible, and that is the main focus of Central College (Williams). If we can use our garden to teach our students to have a more sustainable relationship with food, we can justify minor price increases because, as an institution, we have to prioritize education.
In addition to not having a set source of income for the garden, there is also a clear disconnect in communication between the dining services and the garden. Laura Paskus, a writer who focuses on environmental issues, knows about the strength and power that comes from cooperation between groups such as the blue-collar and green-collar workers (Paskus 38). Even though they both have jobs that may seem contradictory, they can find a common interest in the well-being of their community (Paskus 38). Although Iwan, the Director of Dining Services, and Brian Campbell, the Director of Sustainability Education, would be expected to have different priorities, their focus is the same: the well-being of students. They both acknowledge that there is a disconnect and that it would need to be addressed in order for garden produce to be used efficiently in Central Market. This is not a unique issue, as schools like Unity College have faced similar problems (Ross 102). In order to overcome the communication gap at Unity College, a student gardener was given an updated job title that allowed them to focus on supplying their dining services with produce and acting as a liaison between the garden and the cafeteria (Ross 103). With a single person in charge of relaying information, the connection between garden and dining services will allow for a smoother exchange of produce, allowing dining services to be better prepared.
The final consideration when it comes to implementing self-grown produce into the Central Market is maintaining the garden. There are three concerns when it comes to labor for garden produce: shortage of workers in Central Market, shortage of workers in the summer months, and increasingly hectic schedules as the school year starts. The Central Market always seems to be looking for student workers, and this high demand is reflected in the pay scale. Students who work in the Central Market have higher-paying jobs than most other student workers on campus (Newendorp). Another benefit of working at Central Market is students are given a free meal for every shift they work, meaning they do not have to use one of the fourteen or nineteen weekly meal swipes (Zinc). Although this sounds appealing to students, their meal swipes often go to waste at the end of the week because they used a free meal or two during the week. For example, student worker Madison Zinc works in Central Market three days a week. She has the meal plan which allows students to use nineteen meal swipes a week, but with the three extra swipes and her hectic schedule, she typically has at least six left over (Zinc). This seems counterproductive because it is portrayed as a benefit to the students, but there is little to no reward. Instead of charging the full price for a student’s meal plan, a student who works in a position for the dining services or should be given a reduced cost for their meal plan and their wage should be lowered in order to reflect a more transparent and beneficial income. The promise of a reduced meal plan will attract students because they see the savings upfront. Central Market workers are vital because staff is needed to process the fresh produce in order to prevent waste.
The next consideration for staff is in the garden. Rebecca Laycock Pederson, a postgraduate research student, and Dr. Zoe Robinson, a professor from Keele University, recognize that one of the most important things to consider and understand when it comes to campus gardens is “participant transience,” more simply known as staff turnover (Pederson 12). In their review of university gardens, they acknowledge that students usually miss the most labor intensive and productive part of the growing season (12). By involving people in the garden, we can help to foster a stronger relationship with food and a stronger community. Each year, there are positions open for students to work in the garden, especially during the summer (Campbell). Although they are paid the same wage as the students who work in the dining hall, the wage they make is not enough to offset the cost of remaining in Pella for those who do not live there already during the peak harvest season. Central College already offers research opportunities for students during the summer, where they offer on-campus housing as a benefit, and the garden would provide an excellent opportunity for undergraduate research focused on campus gardens. It is also important to consider worker availability during the school year, which is an issue that many institutions with campus farms and gardens struggle with. One such school that found a solution to this struggle is Scattergood Friends School. Scattergood Friends School is a private boarding school located in West Branch, Iowa. One of the most unique features of this school is their campus farm where students are given the opportunity to learn about farming through hands-on work. Mark Quee is the manager of the farm, and he is charged with the task of ensuring that there is enough labor to maintain the grounds. One of the ways Quee overcomes the lack of student availability during peak harvest time is by planting crops that have a higher cold resistance later than normal in order to delay the harvest as long as possible (Quee). Then, the school year starts with what many schools would call a J-term, or a short period where students explore a specific academic interest (Quee). At Scattergood, students are given one day a week where they spend four hours harvesting and maintaining the farmland (Quee). Classes switch off days, and this helps to give students a chance to learn about sustainability and farming while also giving much needed support to the regular gardening staff. After the majority of the crops are harvested or the J-term ends, the farm is maintained by designated crews of students and staff (Quee). Although a J-term would not be very feasible at the college level, there are over thirty sustainability classes at Central College in which students would benefit from having hands-on experience in sustainability. If each class took one hour, every other week, there would be enough time and student participation to maintain the garden.
Central College is dedicated to creating a community of students who feel that the college is a second home, not a box on the checklist to complete in order to move to the next stage in life. Gardening can help foster this deep sense of community and family. In his work “Moving Mountains,” author and environmentalist Eric Reece warns of something similar to participant transience. When people don’t have a specific attachment to the place they are working or staying, especially if they view it as only temporary, they tend to disregard the wellbeing of others there. This was especially prevalent in the Appalachia Mountains where miners were stripping the once majestic mountains for coal and leaving behind a wasteland (Reece 93). Unlike the miners in Appalachia, there are many places that are working to encourage students to become more connected to the land. For example, at Aaniiih Nakoda College in Montana, five to seven students are hired to work at the garden and greenhouse in the summer (Morales). The students often have to work through the summer heat and swarms of mosquitoes to complete tedious labor. Although this sounds like a job that very few people would want, many students return to this job year after year because of the bonds they make with the land and each other (Morales). By promoting student workers in the garden, we can help bring our community here at Central College even closer while teaching the importance of sustainability.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is difficult, especially when it comes to changing your lifestyle. However, in this case, it is not as difficult as it seems. Central College has made a promise to every student that it will provide the best education possible and that students will become responsible and engaged citizens. In just five months, Central College has taught me the importance of sustainability, and now the college, the faculty, and the students, as a team, must work to identify ways in which we can become more sustainable. The garden is one place where we lack sustainability; although there are obstacles such as financing the switch, promoting better communication, and maintaining the grounds, these obstacles can be overcome. We must work together to use the garden produce in the Central Market in order to live up to the sustainability standards we have set for ourselves, and to ensure the integrity of our community.
Caiazzo, Matthew and Jeremy Tardif. Personal Interview. 18 Nov. 2019.
Campbell, Brian. Personal Interview. 7 Nov. 2019.
Cobb, Tanya Denckla. Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat. Storey Publishing, 2011, pp.145-70.
Global Sustainability Education, Central College, https://www.central.edu/academics/programs/global-sustainability-education/.
Pedersen, Rebecca Laycock and Zoe Robinson. “Reviewing University Community Gardens for Sustainability: Taking Stock, Comparisons with Urban Community Gardens and Mapping Research Opportunities.” Local Environment, 17 Apr. 2018, p. 12.
Quee, Mark. Personal Interview. 15 Nov. 2019.
Morales, Manuel and Scott Friskics. “Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Community: The Aaniiih Nakoda College Demonstration Garden and Greenhouse Project.” Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, vol. 30, no. 3, Spring 2019, https://tribalcollegejournal.org/growing-a-healthy-sustainable-community-the-aaniiih-nakoda-college-demonstration-garden-and-greenhouse-project/.
Newendorp, Donna. Personal Interview. 21 Nov. 2019.
Paskus, Laura. “The Union Makes Them Stronger.” The Future of Nature: Writing on a Human Ecology from Orion Magazine, edited by Barry Lopez, Milkweed Editions, 2007, p. 38.
Reece, Erik. “Moving Mountains.” The Future of Nature: Writing on a Human Ecology from Orion Magazine, edited by Barry Lopez, Milkweed Editions, 2007, p. 93.
Ross, Nancy J. “Bringing You Fresh Food from Local Farms and Our Garden: A College Class Designs a Program to Meet Peer and Institutional Needs.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, vol. 37, no. 2, Mar 2005, pp. 102-3.
Scoggins, Holly L. “University Garden Stakeholders: Student, Industry, and Community Connections.” HortTechnology, vol. 20, no. 3, June 2010, p. 528.
Williams, Iwan. Personal Interview. 4 Nov. 2019.
Zinc, Madison. Personal Interview. 20 Nov. 2019.