Thursday, September 30, 2010

Student Sustainable Farming at De Paul University?

The concept of student farming would reasonably conjure up images of rural, agricultural schools training the future farmers of America. A new trend, however, has emerged at universities across the United States, including private, state and Ivy League institutions. With programs at many schools, including Rutgers, Cornell and Yale, this new trend, called student sustainable farming, is no longer just for agricultural students. More than forty on-campus student farms exist today. Students who attend universities with robust international and study-abroad programs, such as DePaul, can benefit from the experience provided by sustainable farming projects. Students who are preparing for study-abroad programs in developing countries in Africa, South American and Asia could bring more practical insight to their programs through the experience of participating in sustainable farming.

Sustainable farming has been used on campuses to establish community supported agriculture (CSA), farm stands, provide fresh produce to dining halls, and assist local soup kitchens and food pantries with their growing demand. The University of Vermont, for example, donates about half of its crop to local food aid projects. Student farms range in size and can be as large as 200 acres, although many are as small as an acre or less. It is true that many of these farms are linked to college courses related to agriculture, however, many are also linked to courses in global food politics and sustainability. As students learn ecological, economic, and social skills through cultivating crops, marketing products and supporting community development, they become engrossed in the educational and community service principles such as those held at DePaul University.

In many cases, student farms are self-sustained through their CSA initiatives and may even be organized as non-profit entities, allowing them to secure government grants to offset start-up costs. Farms at DePaul could use food scraps from dining halls and campus leaves for compost materials and supply food back to dining halls at harvest time. While the program at DePaul would start small, the opportunity for growth is exponential. For example, the Center for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at the University of California at Santa Cruz operates a two-acre farm and is a great example of how universities can create outreach programs that not only benefit research and education on campus, but also can increase public interest in sustainable, resource-conserving agricultural techniques. The CASFS collaborates with non-governmental organizations, its local community and government agencies to provide publications and workshops for not only professional curriculum, but also for school children.

DePaul’s urban location, complemented by suburban campuses, provides an ideal atmosphere for this initiative. Other urban universities that are setting the bar include American, Georgetown and George Washington Universities in Washington, D.C., which started student gardens in 2009 and donated food to local food banks. Even universities closer to home, like Northwestern University's student garden, recognize the benefits of student gardens and have taken the first step in giving their students hands-on experience in sustainable gardening. These schools are proving that making a difference does not have to take up a lot of space. As each of these schools have demonstrated, raised beds can be put virtually anywhere and DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus could certainly accommodate this.

There is little doubt that student sustainable farming is a great opportunity for DePaul University. Shares in CSA initiatives could include distribution to low-income community members, as is done at Rutgers University, keeping with the values of St. Vincent de Paul. Additional benefits include more efficient use of university land resources to provide practical solutions for public service and sustainable education initiatives. The university’s connection to the community could only be strengthened while providing experiential learning to students preparing for careers in business, public service, international studies or various other concentrations. Many schools, from small liberal art colleges to Ivy League universities, have successfully developed student farm programs. Now is the time for DePaul to be a pioneer in the Chicago area with its own student sustainable farming initiative.

Posted by: Sondra Elder
(photo courtesy of Matt Steiman and Inno Onwueme)

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