By Deb Dramby, Public Health Garden Founding Farmer
Historically, as the academic year wraps up in May and June, many students would be gearing up for a summer of hard work on the family farm.
At a land grant university, like the University of Maryland is, with a robust Agricultural and Natural Resources college and land stewardship focus, this is especially true.
However throughout recent decades, industrialization in farming operations and modernization of food distribution systems has lessened the number of people needed on conventional farms.
The innovations have moved a few farmers onto tractors, their produce into larger trucks, and opened the path for many to explore completely different fields of study.
Amazing progress in all sorts of fields we never could have pursued had we all been tied to the labor required to grow all of our own food.
The side effect?
Unprecedented increases in rates of obesity, childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Yet on the very bright side, a growing number of students worldwide as well as right here at the University of Maryland have seen these trends and are dedicating their studies and careers to finding solutions for these issues.
For many, is has led them back to their roots, quite literally, in local soils.
Whether it is classified as Nature Deficit Disorder or simply an instinct deep in their souls returning them to the food that nourishes them, students throughout campus are dedicating their free time, internships and studies to returning to the practice of growing their own food – and experiencing benefits to their own personal well-being on spiritual, physical, social, emotional and intellectual levels.
For example, Diana Daisy, who will be a junior this fall, has chosen to devote both her internship time and free time to building up the rooftop community gardens on campus, working closely with the Sustainability Coordinator of Dining Services, Allison Lilly, MPH.
While Lilly devoted her Masters Project to finding ways to source foods for the campus locally, she spent her free time building the Public Health Garden, a student teaching and community garden demonstrating sustainable agriculture and environmental best practices in support of public, environmental and community health.
The Public Health Garden has and continues to serve as a living classroom for students of all interests to gather and grow both food and a sense of community together.
Whether or not the student volunteers are studying public health, sustainable agriculture or weed science, they are participating in growing numbers. The garden has become a space capable of filling that unexpected gap between humans and nature that accompanied innovation.
It has opened the door for students, faculty, staff and alumni to return to nature and its systems – and to the land grant mission – on a daily basis.
The Public Health Garden’s location in a high traffic area just next to Eppley Recreation Center has allowed for regular and continued engagement with TerpQuest children’s camps, scholars dorm residents, students involved in the nearby campus farm/animal sciences, students enrolled in the various certificate programs offered at the Institute of Applied Agriculture (headquartered in nearby Jull Hall), and hosts weekly volunteer hours frequented by service sororities and fraternities on campus.
In the past year and a half, the project transformed an otherwise wasted space into one that nourishes plants and people alike.
During the 2011 growing season the students and site produced more than 250 pounds of fresh produce and sent small work-shares home with volunteers twice weekly.
Project leaders worked diligently to maintain the aesthetics of the space, made strides in the building of the top terraced and raised beds beautifully adorning the site today, and submitted grants for the next infrastructure development: terracing on the hillside for community garden plots.
In the past few months alone, the garden has worked with Facilities Management and the student chapter of the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) to install a rainwater capture area rich in water-loving plants to help retain sediment and nutrients that flow down the sloped garden site during heavy rains. The agricultural fraternity, sorority, and honors society constructed a stunning arbor for the site with funds obtained through a grant to their parent organization.
In the coming weeks, the Public Health Garden is facing a big transition: several of the founding farmers are graduating and the project is only partially complete.
The beautiful, flourishing raised beds will be nurtured and maintained by the Institute of Applied Agriculture’s Instructors with help from continuing students and founding farmers, Nathan Lim and Phillip Capon.
The groups is also in need of a few more enthusiastic students to fill the following roles:
- Communications Manager: Responsible for managing the Public Health Garden email, Google group, Facebook, and blog
- Volunteer Coordinator: Responsible for planning and participating in volunteer hours
Interested applicants should send an email, with a statement of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional roles for students continue to develop alongside the interest in local foods and community gardening. The group hopes to work together with rooftop, Hillel and St Mary’s garden clubs to pool produce and have a regular presence at the new Farmers Market at Maryland.
So whether your interests lie in puttering around the garden occasionally, furthering the farm-to-table food movement, getting a little exercise, or simply engaging with other active students, we encourage you to get involved.