Student group wants to bring better, local food to dining halls

For a group of University of Colorado students, the "freshman 15" says less about the sedentary lifestyle, underage drinking and stressful schedules of students and more about CU's food system and the lack of understanding about food waste and food production by their peers.

CU Going Local is a group of students working to get locally grown food into dining halls, educate fellow students on how to grow and produce their own food and work with the Boulder community to build urban gardens in elementary schools and low-income housing developments.

"I really want everyone to have an awareness of the benefits of eating more local and sustainable food and how they can go about doing it in an affordable way," said Bryant Mason, a junior and one of the eight students on the group's steering committee. "Growing your own food is doable for students and we want to help them understand that."

Getting their hands dirty

The group's leaders didn't grow up on farms. They came from suburbia and rural areas all over the United States: South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Colorado. They chose CU not only for the school's green reputation, but for Boulder's as well. While the group's student leaders have bigger social and environmental issues they are trying to tackle, they also just enjoy gardening and are inspired being able to create food from a tiny seed.

Since 2007 Going Local has from about 20 involved students to having an email list with more than 200 people on it, said Mason. The group organizes gardening days, on-campus documentary screenings, potlucks or other events such as the spice tasting they held at Savory Spice last weekend

At a workshop last Saturday morning led by Growing Gardens, a small group of CU students and Going Local leaders learned about composting, crop planning and fertilizing soil naturally using cover crops. Growing Gardens, a nonprofit community garden in North Boulder that also donates food to low-income families, waived the $35 fee in exchange for four volunteer hours from each of the students. Ben Turner, who taught the class impressed the students when he talked about making compost tea. Turner, standing beside the 11-acre plot of land, held a glass jar filled with the brown colored liquid compost. He made the nutrient-rich fertilizer by putting compost in cheesecloth and soaking the bundle in water. Albert Strasser, a committee member, calls Turner a "genius."

"He is really a wealth of knowledge," said Lindsey Zemler, a committee member.

Starting in March, on most Friday afternoons, Going Local's steering committee and as many as 20 other students have gardening days at either the garden behind CU's Environmental Design building or the Hill Garden on Seventh and University avenues. The group has big plans for the gardens. They want to grow hops and grapes along the wooden trestle and use a rotten log to grow mushrooms. At the campus garden's first gardening day in March, students raked up fallen leaves and sprinkled fresh coffee grounds to prepare the soil for the herbs, tomatoes, tomatillos, lettuce, chard and kale they will plant. Students also turned the compost housed in a large wooden chest and painted small fence posts with bright-colored paint for their hill garden.

Sabina Bastias, a freshman and member of the steering committee, sprouts lettuce and tomato seeds in her dorm room by balancing small planting containers on the window ledges. Despite the spectrum of gardening abilities and knowledge among its members, Going Local students are trying get students and the campus community to embrace a garden to table approach to eating and food production in the dining halls and in their own homes.

Watching what students eat -- and what they don't

Freshman and committee member Sara Brody grew up gardening in Denver, but until recently, considered it to be a chore. She was instantly drawn to the garden on campus and wanted to know who was in charge of taking care of it. Brody is focused on improving the dining halls as well as gardening and glad that she still has three more years to work on a process that has been slow going. Brody sees students piling up their plates from the unlimited buffets in some of the dining halls with more food than they can eat, then throwing out the rest.

"The food in the dining halls is absolutely unacceptable," Brody said. "People gain so much weight at school, even if you don't eat that much, it's just so bad for you.

"There needs to be less food, too much is going to waste.

CU's Environmental Center has tried to encourage students about only taking what they can eat and composting leftover food through campus education campaigns, but according to the Going Local steering committee, student habits have not improved. There are other students working to get more locally grown food into the dining halls, but many campus leaders think that mobilization and the power of a group with a large number of members.

"I think it will be important for Going Local to improve numbers, but what they have done is lay the framework for a vibrant and robust community to emerge," said John Hallett, a senior who has been a leader on campus on environmental issues. "The rest of the leaders on campus have been interested in building a larger community, and we aren't going to be around much longer so we want to identify who is going to keep the movement going."

Donating their time

In addition to education outreach and promoting sustainable food on campus, their mission includes civic engagement. They are currently developing plans for setting up gardens in affordable housing developments. They are brainstorming ways to engage Boulder restaurants that serve local and seasonal produce. Many of the Going Local students volunteer at a student-run farm in Boulder called Beyond Organic Farm, which sells produce at the Farmers Market and offers CSAs. They recently became involved with the Growe Foundation, a Boulder County nonprofit that has established gardens at 11 elementary schools in Boulder Valley School District. The CU students will help maintain, cultivate and engage students at six elementary schools during the month of April.

"In many ways it's great for young students to see the older student out there role-modeling and promoting social responsibility," said Bryce Brown, founder of the Growe Foundation said. "This generation of university students will be taking on many of the problems we are facing in terms of the environmental problem."


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