A New Generation of Farmers
Some students are taking their passion for environmental policy to the dining hall and growing sustainable food on campus.
The locally grown, organic food movement has made its way to college campuses across the country. Rather than just eating the food that appears in their dining halls, some students are taking initiative to grow the food themselves. More and more gardens are appearing on campuses that supply vegetables to the salad bar. Other students are spending their time pressuring their dining halls to buy local and sustainable food. For many college students, eating has become political.
Kate Mrozicki took environmental classes she described as “depressing." "They all focused on terrible things humans had done to degrade the environment,” she said. Mrozicki found growing vegetables and herbs at Poughkeepsie Farm Project during her time at Vassar College a positive way to channel her environmental energy. “I also liked the social connection,” said Mrozicki, who added that she farmed alongside a rabbi and housewife. She found this gardening community a welcomed contrast to the social bubble of college life.
The Poughkeepsie Farm Project leases land from the college and is professionally managed. It provides enough produce for 240 families through a Community Supported Agriculture model, Mrozicki said. The members pay a fee at the beginning of the season for a weekly share of the vegetables.
But not all campus-based community garden organizations are as large as the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Many schools host small gardens that rarely turn a profit. Instead, their mission is to raise food production awareness among students. Moreover, while some school farms employ a farm director or rely on a faculty advisor, others are entirely student run.
The Brown Sustainable Food Initiative was started by a small group of students in 2005. The farm has 60 members and the Friday work sessions normally draw about 40 volunteers, said group member David Schwartz. The figure adds to the sustainable food movement’s broadly defined goal of bringing consumers face-to-face with the people who grow their food and complements a side mission of campus food movements to improve farm workers’ rights. Students like Schwartz feel that farmers need and deserve customers and advocates.
Schwartz is also a national leader in the Real Food Challenge, an organization that aims to connect and strengthen youth sustainable food movements. Though much of the focus is viral—the website is a “resource hub for some of the best models and fact sheets” that “helps connect students at farms across the country,” said Schwartz—the organization also brings students face to face at frequent Real Food Summits. At the weekend conferences, students from many campus sustainable food groups convene to learn strategies and build coalitions.
Real food is “a holistic term,” said Schwartz. “It isn’t just about local or fair trade, it’s about all of that, it’s about transforming the food industry.” Real Food’s online database of schools with sustainable food programs currently lists over 300 participants.
Though students may be enthusiastic about growing their own food, few are armed with the know-how required to run a farm. Oren Jakobson, who is part of the Appleton, Wisconsin-based Sustainable Lawrence University Garden (SLUG), contends that the biggest problem facing his organization’s garden is the lack of farming expertise. “We used to have a student with biodynamic growing experience but when he left, there was not a lot of knowledge,” said Jakobson.
To overcome this hurdle, Lawrence University offers a for-credit class about gardening for the new farmers. Jakobson said he hopes that the knowledge gained from the course will increase the productivity and profitability of the garden.
Other schools also offer credit for farm work. The Rodale Institute, a resource for organic farmers, lists almost 80 campuses that have farm programs or farming classes. The database includes the year the campus garden was founded and its structure, whether the produce goes to the dining hall, a food stand, a farmers’ market, or if it runs by a CSA model. The list, though admittedly incomplete since Brown University’s garden is not listed, testifies to the range of farming programs that exist: Berea College in Kentucky has a 480-acre farm founded in 1855 and the more recent Lawrence University quarter-acre garden is also listed.
SLUG now sells its produce exclusively to the dining services at the university. The group members have designed a logo that they would like to see displayed near food produced by the farm. “That doesn’t always happen,” said Jakobson. “There is a big disconnect between the production and the labeling.”
The group also helps to improve the sustainability of the school by converting the fruit and vegetable waste from the cafeteria kitchen into compost to enrich the garden.
Like the Lawrence group, many garden projects function under financial constraints as securing funding can be difficult. Many garden projects get stipends from student activities boards or receive money through grants or donations.
But students at schools with neither the land nor the resources for a farm can still improve the sustainability of their campus. Lobbying the dining services to buy local and organic food is a powerful way to change consumption patterns. Schools and colleges spend $4 billion a year on food, according to the Real Food Challenge.
If a significant portion of that budget was spent on sustainable food—the Challenge sets the goal of redirecting 20 percent by 2020—schools would cut their carbon footprint by reducing the transportation of food across the country. Becoming patrons of local farmers would strengthen community businesses and encourage students to eat more unprocessed, nutrient-filled food.
A group of students at New York University recognized the food purchasing choices of their school were important so they created the Sustainability Task Force that oversees a group focused on food and purchasing. Group member and former chair Annie Myers said that the successes have been “the result of our own efforts coupled with the initiatives of Aramark, our food service provider. We now have all fair trade coffee in the dining halls, and one pilot dining hall, Hayden, serves locally-sourced fruits and vegetables.” But it’s not easy. “Food system change doesn’t happen in a day, and sometimes the results of a small group are dishearteningly non-tangible,” Myers said.
Student groups often face resistance from administrations because of the increased cost of buying local and organic food, especially as schools face severe budget cuts. Cooperation between students and dining services has been crucial to bringing more sustainable foods into dining halls. Annabelle Ho, secretary of Slow Food Boston University, said that her group had trouble communicating their goals to the dining services until BU hired an Aramark-based sustainability coordinator last year. Many other schools have created such positions to address these environmental concerns.
“Slow Food began as a movement in Italy, encouraging “good, clean, and fair” food,” said Ho. Two years ago the U.S. chapter created Slow Food on Campus and students at over a dozen colleges have formed groups like the one at BU. Ho’s group adheres to the movement’s ideal of celebrating the homemade and the homegrown by “enjoying “slow” food, each other’s company, and good conversation at our potlucks” which are held twice a month.
Mrozicki, who got her start at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project at Vassar College, graduated in 2004 and now farms at the Food Project, a Real Food Challenge sponsor. She said that she knows of around 20 people who worked on the farm in Poughkeepsie and who, several years out of school, are still involved in farming in some way. Mrozicki and the others from the Poughkeepsie farm show that participation in campus farms is not simply a passing fad.
Brittany Peats is a freelance journalist. She is a graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication and Vassar College.