Food For Thought: Edible Campus Gardens Might Be More Important Than You Think

The most beautiful place on the campus of the University of Utah is relatively unknown.  Hidden behind a peeling edifice, the back of an old theater and a chiller plant– the “Pioneer” (after the theatre) Edible Campus Gardens are a wondrous place.  Avenues of edible organic artistry have expanded to become a green space that all the campus ought to know about, and take advantage of.

Walking past on the way to class one might notice crimson Brandywine tomatoes the size of a man’s fist and lime green tomatillo lanterns soaking in the sun.  It is endless work picking the delicious butter beans, Japanese curry squash, and corrugated Armenian cucumbers.  Amarillo and atomic red carrots are pulled from the dank fragrant soil beside kale, purple basil and sly black sunflowers.  Southern Amaranth the color of red wine preside over the colorful organic concert like silent giants.  Waste and death are not avoided, but are necessarily and persistently welcomed.  Perpetual composting keeps the gardens vibrant and sustained- fed by contributions from the garden and Chartwells food vendors.  Another garden at the Sill Center boasts similar artistry and processes only on a smaller scale.

Garden coordinators, stewards and student volunteers help plant the gardens, maintain them and harvest the palpable produce year round.  Some of it goes home with them, and the bulk is sold at the Farmers Market in Tanner Plaza nearly every Thursday of the fall. The Market enables the Gardens to be self-sustaining and provides a valuable service to the University community.  Everyone can buy very affordable organic vegetables that bring better health, taste better and promote the important message the Gardens send.

The Edible Campus Gardens are in many ways a microcosm of what our community could do to rise above our unsettling dependence on industrial agriculture and fossil fuel.  The Gardens are about being mindful of our place in the environment and of the centuries of human trial and error before us.  Growing our own food is something we can do locally that has global implications.  Cultivation enables us to be healthier, more resilient people– by taking food production in our own hands we become less susceptible to corporate control, the effects of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and the inherent uncertainty related to dwindling cheap fuel supplies.

If you don’t think industrial agriculture has any influence over you- think again.  Despite 80% of water resources being used for irrigation statewide, most of food eaten by the growing human population in arid places like Utah is brought in by truck, train, and plane– and if these stop coming, for whatever reason, there are going to be a lot of hungry people.

Food production is mostly carried out by various arms of the enormous industrial agricultural system mainly on huge farms and feedlots in the Midwest.  The profitability of the industry and low food prices for consumers very much depend upon the availability of cheap fossil fuel.  For example, the average food product is transported 1500 miles to the grocery store, and came from a place far different than the pristine farm on the package.

The industrialization of our food also has significant downsides.  Environmental degradation, flooding, dietary health problems and world hunger have roots stretching from industrial meat production and the large amounts of grain cultivated for feed.  Extensively used pesticides are associated with cancers, autism and neurological disorders and ultimately end up in our water sources (even changing the sex of some amphibians mid-life).  Chemicals used in making plastics are leached by food packaging and abundantly found in most humans.  And the list goes on.

However, all our eggs need not be in one mass-produced basket.  All around us, throughout our cities and on our campuses, there is ample unused space and water to grow food.  We live not in a crowded and dying environment, but one that is ripe for transformation.

If everyone grew a portion of their own food, it would go a long way towards restoring resilience to the human population, while substantially reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.  The effort needed would not be overwhelming- and as a country we have done it before.  During World War II, in our country’s darkest hour, more than 40% of the produce consumed by the country was grown in Victory Gardens.  Different times simply require different capabilities and it could be a mistake to overlook such a simple solution just because we have such a big problem.

There is a limit to what industry and technology can do, and eventually we will not have enough irrigable lands, freshwater and oil to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding human population on Earth.  (Another million humans every four days.)  But growing our food shows us that we can do something for our planet and ourselves, despite how big and discouraging things can seem.  Edible Gardens give students and the greater community an opportunity to reconnect to a human past where people took care of themselves and their whole environment, using their own bodies for support- just like our ancestors did for thousands of years.

Edible Campus Gardens improve health, engage minds, reduce air and water pollution and ultimately save the cultivator money.  They are deeply important for the University of Utah and the greater community, because in our complex and globalized world, no matter how hard we may try to see things differently– everything is linked to our food.

Participate or learn more at- www.sustainability.utah.edu/ediblegardens

And support the U of U Office of Sustainability at- www.sustainability.utah.edu/

Nick Schou is a Graduate Student in Environmental Humanities and an Intern at the University of Utah Office of Sustainability

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