Student gardens go beyond planting
Prior to beginning my journey as the premier garden queen in residence of Foggy Bottom, I grew up in the metro Atlanta suburbs with a big backyard and parents who actively promoted the importance of doing chores to a child’s development. I spent a few hours most weekends weeding until my mother decided that it was enough. There was never a definitive measurement of enoughness, but she knew the magic number. Once I decided that I was a “city girl at heart” and went off to the big, bad District of Columbia, I told myself that I would never weed again in my life. Although I always knew that I cared about human rights in a vague, millennial sense of the word, I hadn’t discovered my big motivation.
After a rough first semester and homesick for my mother’s fresh dinners, I was thrilled to meet a group of crunchy, like-minded individuals who enjoyed potluck-ing with friends and playing old records on vinyl. GW’s Progressive Student Union and the Food Justice Alliance were two groups filled with budding activists who cared about a variety of issues from labor to food. Jesse Schaffer ‘16, the co-founder of GW’s GroW Garden, once drew a diagram at a Food Justice Alliance meeting that outlined a very simplified version of the current, mainstream food system in America. At the top of the whiteboard was the farmer, and then, after the lettuce made its way through the modern food chain, with various processors, factories, and corporate suppliers, it reached me. Us. The consumer.
All of the sudden, a lightbulb went off in my head. How can we bring the consumer closer to the grower? I wanted to shake the farmer’s hand and thank them for the beautiful food that they so carefully grew. I wanted to know where my dinner came from.
As I paid more attention to the resources available for fresh food, combined with my educational pursuit of sociology and the institutional systems of oppression embedded in our nation, I realized my dream; real food that is local, safe, fresh, sustainable, and fair for all individuals, no matter their income level. What better place to begin to learn more about my food than the GroW Gorden only a block from the metro and two blocks from our student center where our motto is: “touch more plants” than?
After volunteering for a year at the garden and a trip to the inspiring Plenitud, an educational permaculture farm in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, I began managing with Eilish Zembilci ‘16, a close friend with a similar vision. In case you were wondering, no, I did not have any real knowledge of agriculture. But I had a passion, able body, the magical resource of Google, and support from a plethora of students, faculty, staff, and our partner organization where we donate all of our produce, Miriam’s Kitchen, an organization dedicated to serving the homeless community of DC with quality meals and services crucial to surviving and flourishing.
Over the past year of managing the garden, I (along with my co-manager from summer of 2015, Eilish and the current co-manager for summer of 2016, Olivia Murphy ‘18), spearheaded a new and so far successful composting system and training program for the Foggy Bottom community, won a grant from DC Department of Energy and the Environment to install a rainwater harvesting system, and continued to develop a solid base of volunteers. Currently, we are working on an alternative dining plan for students with GWorld, our school’s dining payment method, through a CSA partnership and increasing student access to FRESHFARM Markets to provide students with local, fresh food options. The garden provided me with a roadmap to success in my future postgraduate career.
I have developed confidence in my abilities to grow food, lead an organization, collaborate and communicate with other organizations in DC working towards sustainable food systems, and have met a variety of inspiring individuals on the way. More students should take advantage of their school’s gardens and/or farms. They are excellent resources for free therapy (touching dirt sends dopamine and serotonin to your brain!), eating better, lifelong leadership skills, and making more friends that care about food.
— Kayla Williams, GroW Garden Manager
This story was shared with permission from the GW Food Institute Commentary section. Learn more about the GW Food Institute.