Food (and Farms) for Thought: Campus Farming and Environmental Sustainability

By Jenna Banning

For many young Americans, the college application process is one of the biggest decisions of their lives, and full of many important considerations – the quality of the academic programs, the competitiveness of the sports teams, and the number of campus clubs. But today, students are increasingly adding one more factor to the list – the school’s environmental sustainability.

Image credit: Dickinson College

According to the 2011 Princeton Review, 69 percent of college applicants say that having information about a college’s commitment to environmental issues would contribute to their decision to apply to or attend the school.  This is up from 64 percent in 2008, and reflects a growing trend in higher education across the North American continent. As awareness of the importance of protecting our planet’s resources grows, many colleges and universities are seeking to establish or promote their school’s environmentally-friendly programs.

Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, recently hosted a two-day long conference devoted on building these programs, with a particular focus on the value of agriculture and food systems. Neil Leary, director of Dickinson’s Center for Sustainability Education, remarked how the conference’s focus on agriculture  is part of a growing societal movement: “Many of our students are deeply interested in food – what we grow and eat, how we grow it, and how we process, transport, distribute and market it. And they are interested for good reason. How societies answer these questions will determine whether we expand access to healthy, nutritious food to a growing world population, while also protecting the planet’s environmental resources and developing resilient, diverse economies and communities.”

Seeding the Future – Cultivating the College Farm, From the Field to the Classroom” brought together nearly 240 individuals from over 60 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Keynote speaker Anthony (Tony) Geraci, a longtime Farm-to-School supporter and winner of the “Foodservice Director of the Year” in 2009 for his work in improving the food service system of Baltimore City’s Public Schools, encouraged listeners to nurture change in their own local communities by utilizing the strengths already there. Geraci helped to implement school menus which are plant-based and include Meatless Mondays, and under his stewardship, Baltimore’s public schools now source their fresh fruits and vegetables from surrounding Maryland farms. Geraci also founded the “Great Kids Farm” in Baltimore, a 33 acre farm being used for vocational training and organic food production for Baltimore schools and restaurants. Other leaders in the field included representatives from Warren Wilson College, which has been running a 275 acre working farm for years, teaching students how to run a mixed crop and livestock farm sustainably, both economically and environmentally.

Other attendees at the conference are looking to start their own farms, or increase the focus on sustainability at their schools. Dickinson’s 180 acre farm provided conference participants an ideal example of how to integrate agricultural and environmental learning with the overall curriculum and operations of higher education. Using produce from the farm  teaches the campus about local food systems. (At Dickinson, over 60 percent of the farm’s harvest goes to the school’s dining facilities, and the remainder supplies the farm’s CSA or is donated to a local food bank.) By incorporating renewable-energy sources in its operations (Dickinson’s farm uses both solar-electricity and solar-water heating), school farms can encourage other aspects of the college’s operations to consider their own environmental impacts.

In addition to improving the conditions on a school’s campus, employing students to work on a college farm can also have powerful impacts for the future, helping to encourage more youth to have careers a career in sustainable agriculture. Julia Barton, one of the conference’s speakers, stated that her involvement in student farming helped shape her academic and professional path. Since graduating from Dickinson in 2005, Barton helped to found the Ohio State University Student Farm and has been working on building the connections between urban agriculture and social issues.

Campus farms do more than supply apples or greens for cafeterias; they can provide important lessons in agricultural practices and environmental sustainability. And as interest from both students and schools increases, the results hold great potential for addressing the global concerns of hunger, climate change, and social equality.

Does your local school have a focus on sustainable agriculture?

Jenna Banning is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet. 

To read more about school susustainability programs across the world, see: Building a Sustainable School and Teaching the World’s Future, Innovation of the Week: School food gardens support food security and education in the Cape Flats, and Farmers of the Future – Building the Curriculum.

Holiday offer: To purchase a copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet at a 50 percent discountplease click HERE and enter code SW1150. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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