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Student Eats: the benefits of a community garden

Wednesday 30-01-2013 - 00:00

Just over a year ago, a team from the University of Exeter Students’ Guild turned a patch of land on the edge of their campus into a thriving community garden to produce low-carbon, organic food. This year, funding from the Big Lottery Fund and Local Food has allowed NUS to help expand this project as part of the Student Eats scheme.

Russell Warfield, sustainability communications assistant, NUS

As well as supporting nearly 20 other institutions across the UK in starting up their own student-led allotments with the help of students’ unions, the Student Eats scheme is getting people reconnected with what they eat, and invested in considering the environmental impact of their food choices.

After one year in existence, Exeter’s community garden is a successful example of how growing projects are uniquely suited to stimulate a strong relationship between staff and students, and shows how easy it is to embed them into the social and academic fabric of an institution.

“I’ve been involved in food for a while, promoting sustainability and community, and so the garden was an obvious thing to get involved in,” says third-year biochemistry student Freddie Dudbridge.

“It’s important because we have big sustainability problems, big food problems coming up, we’ve lost biodiversity, we’ve got monoculture, we’ve lost taste. And this just brings it all home: it shows you what veg looks like, how it’s grown, what you can grow locally, and it tastes amazing.”

More and more people are beginning to see food production as one of the most crucial impacts on global carbon emissions and ecological destruction, and so projects like the Exeter community garden are seeing a huge level of engagement at their institutions.

The garden attracts students from a vast range of academic backgrounds and for a wide variety of reasons, reflecting the diverse aims of the project, ranging from the lowering of environmental impact to the heightening of community cohesion.

English student Helena Falklands got involved in the project because she admires the way the project links the institution to the local community, whereas psychology student Inga Maier is more invested in sustainability, and believes it’s a good idea to grow food locally.

Working collaboratively

But beyond more obvious motivations related to sustainability and community, the garden also attracts participation from departments of the university thanks to its ability to offer practical support to research and study which would otherwise be inaccessible. The department of archaeology at the University of Exeter, for example, runs an MA course which requires the raw materials of flax and woad, but PhD student Kate Verkooijen explains how difficult this was to achieve before the garden was established.

“Because it’s an MA course, it usually runs for just one year – people show up in September and leave again in July, and so it doesn’t match up with the plant growing season really,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of people who were able to help clear the land, and we never really got very far. So when the community garden set up and they put in proper raised beds, we asked if we could borrow one to put some crops in there – our fibre plants, and dye plants.”

With the collaborative efforts of volunteers from right across the institution – particularly international students and local residents who were more likely to be able to maintain momentum over the summer – it suddenly became possible for the department to access the raw materials they needed for their studies.

The garden also sees wide academic engagement across the university, from the psychology department which tend the bee colony, to members of the education department who are using the garden to guide research into links between gardening and mental health, as part of the development of alternative therapies.

Perhaps more than any other sustainability campaigns supported by students’ unions across the UK, Student Eats supports projects which galvanise collaboration and integration at participating institutions, bringing together a huge breadth of people to share the benefits of a project which gets to the very core of sustainable living.

After just a year of existence, the community garden has installed itself into the heart of the university in a way that a lot of other sustainability projects championed by students’ unions fail to replicate.

The origins of our food

If you’ve been wondering what flax and woad even is, let alone what you might do with it, then you’re demonstrating the need for another benefit offered by community garden projects: the reconnection not only with others around us, but also with the origins of the things we eat and use – a key cognitive leap we need to make to fully appreciate the environmental implications of our food choices, and the lifestyle adjustments we need to make to secure a sustainable future.

Kate explains that “most people just think about the process of using things, they don’t think about the processes of growing them and acquiring them, and getting them to the state where they’re ready to be used.”

In divorcing ourselves from the origins of the things which we rely on, we enter into a collective ignorance of how these processes can contribute to negative environmental and social impacts: how food miles from inefficient trading systems contribute to global carbon emissions, and how pesticides and fertilisers contribute to the destruction of biodiversity, to take just two examples. But by growing food locally as part of a community projects, we not only reawaken these considerations, but actively begin to make huge, practical strides towards the solutions to these problems.

The universality of food is one of the bigger reasons why projects like the community garden are so far-reaching and so successful – the model is inherently conducive to uniting people over a common goal, born out of a common requirement. As Freddie says, the garden “brings people together over food, whether it be the growing of it, the eating of it, or the helping each other out – it goes through society all ways.”

Just as we are benefited by working with our local community to grow our food, so we are enriched by joining with our local communities to share it. But what’s equally striking is how distinct and local a lot of the pleasures brought by the garden can be.

Reaping the benefits

Paul Cleeve was inspired to become chair of the garden’s committee because of his academic interest in the history of food production in Devon. He’s particularly interested in the orchard which homes “heritage varieties of fruit trees which have been grown in Devon for a long time. [They are] particularly suited to the climate and soil in this part of the county.” It might surprise a lot of people to know that there’s a marked difference in climate and soil in one area of Britain compared to another, but the advancement of projects like the community garden can begin to improve this unawareness – offering people the opportunity to reconnect with their local horticultural heritage, and reversing the unwelcome homogenisation of flavour.

When you consider the sheer breadth and depth of the benefits which flow from a community garden project like Exeter’s, it becomes less surprising that the project has enjoyed such a level of success in such a short amount of time. The space itself is lovely – a tranquil area at the edge of campus surrounded by forestry and bunting, where most volunteers agree there’s no better place to spend a balmy summer’s afternoon in the company of others, sharing agricultural expertise and recipe ideas.

As Paul puts it, “It brings people of different disciplines together, sharing expertise in a very practical sense. There are many, many ways it can bring people together as a community – the student community, the academic community and residents of the local community.”

In supporting this community garden, Exeter Students’ Guild champions a project which protects local biodiversity, links the institution to its local community, provides unique opportunities to its academic departments, brings together people from a vast range of backgrounds, and, perhaps most importantly of all, provides an increasingly bountiful harvest of delicious, organic, sustainable food.

With Student Eats helping to extend Exeter’s crop yield and growing season with new polytunnels and improved drainage, the project can only continue to increase its influence. And with the funding to support nearly 20 other similar projects across the UK, it’s thrilling to see so many students’ unions working to re-establish the links between food and sustainability, and engaging so many students with their institutions and local communities.

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