Growing food and community in a pandemic

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office
Originally published in @theU

Breakfast or textbooks? Dinner or rent? Even before COVID-19, food insecurity was rife on college campuses across America, leaving students with difficult choices to make. As the cost of living rises and college tuition plunges a generation of young people into debt, some students are opting to forego nutritious food to afford other basic needs.

The coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse. By heightening food insecurity in vulnerable communities and hindering our ability to break bread with friends and family, COVID-19 has changed the way we relate to our food.

The Sustainability Office at the University of Utah is quickly adapting its sustainable food initiatives to ensure that students have access to food and community, says Jessica Kemper, sustainable food initiatives manager for the Sustainability Office. “We’re trying to build community and put produce in peoples’ hands,” Kemper says. “The practicality of the work has shifted but not the goals or the mission of the work.”

To continue to meet those goals, past programs are shifting to allow students to continue to physically distance while also accessing fresh produce.

Avery Durham, a fourth-year GIS major and a student garden steward in Sustainability’s Edible Campus Gardens, explains that normally the gardens sell their produce at the weekly U Farmers Market, but with the market canceled this year, it will look a little different. “We’ve decided we’re giving away all of our produce,” Durham says.

On Sept. 9, Oct. 14 and Nov. 4, garden stewards will set up a stand outside of the Campus Store to give away freshly grown garden produce to the university community. These Produce Pickups will not only share food but will also share knowledge about where the food came from and how to prepare it. “We’re having these little recipes that we’re going to be giving away with all the produce,” Durham says. “Students can get the produce that they want, and then they’ll have this recipe that they can go and make.”

Elle-Rose Knudson, a garden steward and third-year mechanical engineering major, explains that the rest of the Edible Campus Gardens’ produce will be donated to the Feed U Pantry, which is located in the basement level of the A. Ray Olpin Union Building. “People having access to food is always an issue, of course, but specifically during the pandemic,” she says. “I felt really good about being part of something that allowed people to have access to food.”

In previous years, most of the gardens’ produce was sold at the U Farmers Market, with smaller amounts provided free at Produce Pickups. This year, however, “all of our produce will be going to the Feed U Pantry where anyone with a U Card can pick it up for free,” Knudson says. Director of the Feed U Pantry Emily Huang, a fourth-year biology student, describes the importance of the pantry to the campus community. “Even before the pandemic, food insecurity, especially in higher education, was very prevalent,” Huang says. “But with the pandemic going on we’ve definitely seen an increase in clients visiting the pantry.”

Huang encourages students, staff, and faculty to visit the Feed U Pantry, and hopes to destigmatize the act of utilizing campus food resources. “This really is a non-judgmental space, and we’re just here for students no matter how much help they need.”

The Sustainability Office also has opportunities for those who are missing the community element of sharing food. Campus student groups will host Zoom Cooking Hours, which create virtual opportunities to gather with friends and share a delicious meal. There will be five events this semester, and cooking kits stocked with a recipe and ingredients will be available at no cost at the Feed U Pantry.  Participants will meet virtually to learn a new recipe, cook, and eat together. The program is sponsored by Harmons.

“In the face of a pandemic, it’s a really good time to just take a breather and eat some good food,” Kemper reminds us. Fortunately, between the Feed U Pantry, Produce Pickups, and Zoom Cooking hours, it’s possible for the campus community to do just that.

Building a sustainable food culture on campus

by Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

Nearly half of the earth’s usable land is designated for human agriculture which means food consumption significantly impacts our planet. According to a comprehensive study published in Science last year, our current relationship to consuming and producing food is not sustainable for the health of the land, water, or global climate. The current food supply chain is responsible for 26% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention other direct impacts to the natural ecosystems of our earth, its water systems, and its wildlife. The study suggests that moving to a non-animal diet could reduce land use by 76% and greenhouse gas emissions by 49%. The study also notes that the United States consumes meat at three times the global average, making our impacts and potential for affecting change even greater as food consumers with choices. But as a study published this year points out, not all consumers impact the environment equally, suggesting that broad shifts in food consumption will also have to include an understanding of the socioecological barriers some face in improving our cuisine consequences on the climate. In any case, all data points to a need for significant changes to our food systems.

Fortunately, there are multiple opportunities to get involved with shifting to a more sustainable food culture on campus. One example is the Hydroponics Club which officially formed last year as a spin-off of Engineers Without Borders. The club’s president, Ian Lavin, is an engineering student who is passionate about growing fresh produce in new and innovative ways. The club is currently utilizing two hydroponic systems, a deep-water system and a Dutch bucket system, to grow leafy greens and tomatoes, each system lending different benefits for different plants. The water use of the systems is relatively low (10-15 gallons per 5-week growing cycle, in comparison modern toilets require about 1.6 gallons per flush), no land is required to grow the produce, and because the growing environment is controlled (indoors) there are no pesticides required and the production is more dependable. According to Lavin, food in a hydroponic system also grows 25-30% faster than conventional growing methods. Hydroponic growing systems have great potential for addressing some of the world’s food production problems. “By staggering the growing cycles, you can achieve a steady stream of fresh produce year-round,” he says. In addition to exploring hydroponics as a sustainable food production method, the club also recognizes the lack of access to fresh, nutritious foods that some populations face and chooses to donate much of the produce grown to the food pantry on campus.

Last year, the Hydroponics Club applied for a SCIF grant and a space in the Lassonde building to build four hydroponic drip walls that utilize vertical space to grow greens, called the Aqua Project. The first wall will be finished by October and installed in the Lassonde lobby in the coming months. If you’re interested in joining, Lavin says anyone with a passion for produce or growing systems is welcome.

The Hydroponics Club isn’t the only option to engage with sustainable food systems on campus, the Sustainability Office works closely with 5 other food clubs that are building a new food culture in our community:

Edible Campus Gardens
Click the link above to be added to the weekly newsletter detailing upcoming events and volunteer activities.

Slow Food U of U
The Slow Food Student Chapter addresses issues of food justice, access, local food systems and more. E-mail to request to be added to their e-mail list.

Real Food Challenge
The Real Food Challenge student group works with University Dining Services and administration to build relationships with local producers and shift our institution’s food purchases toward more real food. Fill out a Volunteer Interest Form through the Bennion Center.

Food Recovery Network
The Food Recovery Network is the largest student movement fighting food waste and hunger in America. Click the link above to see how you can get involved with the U’s chapter.

Feed U Pantry
The University of Utah’s food pantry aims to minimize hunger among students, their families, and faculty and staff by providing free, accessible, and nutritious food. Click here to fill out a volunteer form.

Hydroponics Club
E-mail to get involved.