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In planting campus gardens, university students root themselves in the larger world

Karim Wadood, a senior, pulls weeds with Abby Wallace, a sophomore, at The George Washington University’s GroW Garden. (Photo by Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday afternoon, when the city felt trapped inside a soup cauldron, Yvana Petros, 21, crouched alongside H Street NW and dug her fingers into a patch of soil.

She and twenty or so other George Washington University students had braved the heat to enter a space many of their fellow students might walk by a thousand times without noticing: a half-block strip of cultivated land tucked into the most urban of campuses.

There, if they were to step from the sidewalk over a shin-high wooden fence, they would enter a wonderland of tiny, lovingly tended crops: shishito peppers, kale, swiss chard, bell peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant, amarynth. Apples, peaches, pears. Parsley, cilantro, red okra, zucchini. Sunflowers. And a majestic fig tree heavy with soon-to-ripen fruit.

“I spent the summer working in banking,” said Petros, a senior international affairs and economics major who grew up in Ohio in an agricultural setting. Upon resuming classes last month she decided to volunteer in the university’s GroW Garden, which brought her to planting Bull’s Blood beets in Foggy Bottom.

“I wanted to be around vegetables, and not spend my last year of college worrying about pre-professional stuff,” she said.

The garden, which started in 2009, is part of a burgeoning trend over the past decade in which college students across the country volunteer their time to get back to the land – or to forge a connection to the land for the first time.

There was only a smattering of such gardens in the 80s and 90s, but around 2005 the idea took off around the country, said Leslie Duram, a Southern Illinois University professor of geography and director of environmental studies, who co-authored a 2015 study on university food gardens.

The reasons range from the personal to the global.

“Students have, in recent years, become more interested in campus gardens because it’s something within their control,” Duram said. “Students feel there are pressing global environmental problems and climate change is happening now, and they don’t know what they can do about it.  Campus gardens provide an outlet for their broader environmental concern. It’s an individual action that they can take to help the environment and make a statement.”

They come in the form of large farms at agricultural universities or pocket plots on urban streets. While there is no national registry of campus gardens, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has 308 registered in its voluntary self-reporting framework, which began in 2010. Duram estimates this is just a fraction of the total number nationwide.

Of the 52 surveyed in her study, 78 percent had started in the previous decade.

The majority were initiated by the students themselves, and most receive university funding.

Besides making students feel they are taking a step to solve global problems, the gardens also do good in more concrete, local ways. Besides providing food for campus dining halls, community-supported agriculture programs, and farmer’s markets, many of them donate their harvest to local food banks and other organizations for people in need.

GroW Garden donates most of its harvest to Miriam’s Kitchen, an organization half a block away that feeds meals to 300 to 350 homeless people each day. Boxes of produce also go to formerly homeless people whom Miriam’s Kitchen has helped move into permanent supported housing around the city, often in places where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find.

“A lot of them live in food deserts around D.C.,” said Cheryl Bell, executive chef at Miriam’s Kitchen who incorporates 50 to 75 pounds of GroW Garden produce into her meals each week. “One told us she was so happy to be able to make a kale salad.”

Each Monday morning, students arrive with a wagon of freshly-harvested produce, which gets incorporated into that night’s dinner.

“The guests are really loving it, and they ask for it every Monday,” Bell said.

Recently, the garden also began donating to the campus food pantry, which opened two years ago and now provides food for over 500 students and others experiencing food insecurity, a growing problem on college campuses.

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The garden is also a place where friendships get forged. Lizzie Ferrante and Izzy Moody, both 21, started volunteering there as freshmen and bonded over childhoods in New England greenery. Now seniors, they have co-managed the garden since last year and are trying to educate fellow students and the wider community about it.

“Particularly in a city you have to make an effort to connect your food to where it was grown, so I think the garden definitely aims to bridge that,” Moody said.

Isn’t there a potential risk to growing food so openly: people coming in and raiding it?

Ferrante shook her head. “You’d be surprised at people’s awareness of what things are,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know that there’s a farm thing at all, let alone that this is a fig tree.”

As the sun lowered on Wednesday, this year’s new crop of student volunteers weeded, raked, and sowed for the fall harvest.

Some said they had grown up in more rural areas and missed getting their hands dirty. Others, like Mike Ong, 21, a computer science major from Shenzhen, China, came from ultra-urban places. “I just wanted to learn something about gardening because I don’t have much experience,” he said.

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Katherine Twomey, 18, a freshman from Boston, said she saw it as a way of connecting with her new environment. “I really wanted to get involved in the city and not just the little campus bubble,” she said. “I know that homelessness is a problem in DC and I wanted to get involved in trying to help homeless people.”

And, she added, “I also just love plants.”