UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Even in the cold, gray of winter in western Pennsylvania, the fresh green of new life can be found growing on a hilltop at Penn State Beaver.
With funding from a Penn State seed grant designed to implement agriculture and food systems initiatives at the Beaver and Behrend campuses, and with sweat equity from staff and students from Beaver, Behrend and University Park, a 96-foot-long high tunnel was constructed at Penn State Beaver last August. Located in a grassy area behind the campus residence hall, the greenhouse-like high tunnel is the largest at any Penn State location and offers enough protection from the elements to allow students to grow produce year-round.
“We will be harvesting greens all through the winter, mostly salad greens and herbs,” said Angela Fishman, an associate teaching professor of mathematics at Penn State Beaver who oversees the campus garden. “The high tunnel has allowed us to really open up the whole concept of gardening.”
The idea of the campus garden is evolving at Penn State, with gardens serving as living laboratories for interdisciplinary learning and hubs of activity for community engagement. With the University implementing a funding model to develop initiatives that align with Penn State’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, a two-year, $158,000 seed grant was awarded in 2017 to pilot the Sustainable Food Systems Program at the Beaver and Behrend campuses, in support of the plan’s priority to transform education.
The grants are an innovative means to invest in pilot programs designed to put the plan’s thematic priorities into action, and the success of the Sustainable Food Systems Program at University Park has resulted in funding to expand the initiative to other Penn State campuses with a demonstrated interest and capacity to add an engaged scholarship opportunity in sustainable food systems.
“The goal with the grant is to support a couple of campuses and learn through that process how the program works in a different campus context,” said Leslie Pillen, associate director of farm and food systems at Penn State. “People have asked, ‘There isn’t ag at other campuses, is there?’ or ‘How do you know students will be interested?’ We’re piloting those things at Beaver and Behrend right now, while simultaneously working to find out who is interested in gardens at other campuses, who is partnering or wants to partner for class projects, and how we can improve sustainability in our campus food systems.”
Impacting the local community
The Beaver and Behrend campuses were chosen for the food systems expansion project in part because they already had student-run gardens in place.
In the case of Penn State Beaver, in addition to the high tunnel, the seed grant has enabled the campus to expand its existing garden to roughly three times its original size. The grant also allowed Beaver to hire a garden manager — Dave Slebodnik — who has experience in organic and community-based farming, as well as four paid student interns.
At Behrend, the grant has allowed the campus to bring Katie Chriest on board as Sustainable Food Systems Program coordinator, hire three paid campus garden interns, and expand the capacity of its existing garden.
“It’s hard to imagine a project like this without having people in place to keep it going,” Chriest said. “Because of the grant we have the people and the capacity to experiment and try new things.”
However, unlike University Park, Beaver and Behrend don’t have agriculture majors, so students aren’t getting involved in their gardens because they’re plant science majors, Pillen said.
“They’re not there to learn the production aspects of running a garden because it’s directly related to a degree program or major,” said Pillen. “They’re there because of broader interests.”
As a student-run initiative, the students themselves are responsible for operating the gardens, overseeing aspects like production and maintenance, marketing and sales and educational and outreach events held both on campus and in the community.
Community-based education is an important aspect of the gardens, with students from both campuses partnering with local schools to share their knowledge about food and food systems and volunteering with community organizations to help address issues of food insecurity.
“A lot of students who get involved are interested in things like community engagement, working with kids and making a difference in their community,” Pillen said. “Having a physical space that the students are in charge of and then putting them in a position of leadership and a teaching role, where they are in charge of imparting their knowledge to kids or others in the community, is very empowering.”
Growing for the greater good
The produce grown in the gardens benefits the campus and local communities in a variety of ways. At Behrend, the crop is used in on-campus dining; donated to local food pantries, such as Erie’s Emmaus Soup Kitchen; and sold to faculty, staff and students via campus-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, where members of the campus community prepay for a weekly share of the harvest.
The Beaver garden is in the early stages of partnering with Housing and Food Services, with salad greens grown in its high tunnel served to faculty and staff at the campus’ holiday luncheon. Beaver also donates a portion of its harvest to the Salvation Army in Beaver Falls, which is the point of distribution in Beaver County for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and the rest of its yield is distributed to members of the campus community via campus-supported agriculture subscriptions.
Fishman said Beaver uses its CSA subscriptions to expose the campus community to produce that’s different from what they might find or typically buy at the grocery story — things like purple carrots, beets, husk cherry tomatoes, kale and different varieties of green beans — and also to reach out to international students by growing foods that they’re used to having at home, such as varieties of Chinese lettuces and cabbages, but that aren’t found locally.
“And we always try to have an ‘extra’ each week in the CSAs,” said Fishman. “One week it was Thai basil, and how do you use Thai basil to make your food taste different? There are always recipes that go with the produce each week, too, produced by the student interns.”
‘Transforming education’ through engaged scholarship
To be eligible for a Penn State seed grant, projects must incorporate the University’s strategic plan and its thematic priorities, such as transforming education, enhancing health and stewarding the planet’s resources.
Pillen said that the grant really hits on all three of those pillars, but in particular it is helping to facilitate transformative, interdisciplinary educational opportunities at the campuses, with courses and majors that aren’t typically associated with agriculture engaging with the gardens for hands-on learning experiences.
“We’ve been able to make connections with class projects in the business school, communications and public relations and English,” Chriest said. “We’ve also been able to connect with nursing students via the Behrend Lion’s pantry, and a microbiology lab engaged with us on a composting experiment. We’re interested in making broader connections with other disciplines to see the possibilities with our garden and the Sustainable Food Systems Program.”
The Student Farm at University Park has collaborated with classes in eight different colleges, which Pillen said is an exciting number for a program where people at first blush might assume that gardening and food systems are just for agriculture majors.
“For example, we worked with students this fall in the Smeal College of Business’ Sapphire Leadership Academic Program on a capstone project,” Pillen said. “We gave them the farm’s financial data from three years of production, and they worked on analyzing costs and developing a five-year business plan. That’s a good example of how a discipline like business can be involved in a very tangible, relevant way, but that also helps us to understand our expenses on the farm.”
Other food-systems learning components are in the works, including a food-systems minor, which Pillen said she hopes to make available to students at University Park and the Commonwealth Campuses in the near future. Through the seed grant faculty can receive a $5,000 stipend to turn food-systems courses into online classes that would be available to students at any Penn State location.
Students at the Beaver campus also have submitted paperwork to start a student garden club, similar to the successful Student Farm Club at University Park, which has generated additional student and community interest in the farm and food issues that transcend the classroom.
“I have students banging on my door all the time asking, ‘How can I get involved?’” Fishman said. “The positive of this grant is we’re getting students, faculty and staff to talk more about food and what food means to us. We’re just starting to really push the educational part of food systems, and we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this at Penn State Beaver without this funding.”
— Penn State News