Home grown: Students cultivate “real food” movement

Farmers market“Eating local” is a practice that’s growing faster than corn in July. In a 2009 survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, professional chefs ranked locally grown produce as the hottest food trend of the year.

When it comes to local, you can’t get any closer than your own backyard—or in Wheaton’s case, the Dimple.

Last fall, a group of Wheaton students teamed up with Jennis Heal, executive chef in Dining Services, to organize a weekly farmers’ market in the Dimple. Students, faculty and staff flocked to the Friday afternoon markets to purchase produce, breads, cheeses, soaps and other goods offered by local farmers.

The market—slated to return this spring—was sponsored by a new student club called AfterTaste: Wheaton’s Real Food Movement. The group’s mission is to heighten campus awareness of sustainable eating practices and the merits of buying local and organic foods. Members also hope to spark a broader discussion about the culture and politics of food “and how important it is for us to reconnect with what we see on our plate,” says Lana Rosen ’13, the group’s co-founder.

Members of AfterTaste sponsored a stand of their own at the farmers’ market, selling honey and sandwiches they made on the spot with locally produced breads, mozzarella and tomatoes, interlaced with basil grown by students in a campus greenhouse.

The greenhouse, located at the western edge of the Presidents’ House lawn, had sat abandoned for 17 years. It was completely overgrown when Anne Hooper ’13 decided to bring it back to productive life, following previous efforts by other students. In the spring of 2010, Hooper enlisted a group of students to help clean up and refurbish the building, and in September they installed and fertilized new topsoil, then planted parsley, basil, rosemary and lettuce. Chef Heal provided contacts with local farmers, who donated soil and plants for the project.

At the final farmers’ market in November, the greenhouse students sold their first harvest of red-leaf lettuce for $1 a head. Eventually, they hope to produce enough to supply greens to the campus dining halls.

For these and other “green” initiatives, Wheaton students earned an “A” in sustainability from the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a nonprofit organization that works to advance sustainability practices in higher education. The organization’s 2011 college sustainability report card, which profiled 322 schools, awarded Wheaton its highest score for student involvement.

Sustainability efforts gained momentum on campus in 2008, when Sierra Flanigan ’09 and Chad Mirmelli ’09 planned and planted an apple orchard in the garden behind the Presidents’ House. The orchard has since been expanded, and though it has yet to bear fruit, it has sprouted a related outreach project called SEEDS—Sustainable Education for Environmental Development. Originally conceived by Sarah Krause ’10, SEEDS focuses on hands-on environmental education, inviting local children to campus for monthly events. Last fall the group hosted an apple festival, a campus tree walk and a greenhouse tour. Some of the SEEDS members also created a series of environmental lesson plans in a collaborative independent study that focused on outdoor education.

“We try to facilitate environmental learning by fostering direct relationships with the natural world,” says SEEDS co-president Katherine Stanley ’12. Ultimately, SEEDS hopes to create an outdoor classroom in the apple orchard.

Individual students have also undertaken projects related to the local food movement. For instance, Angelica Sullam ’12 used her Regional Scholarship to support a summer internship in which she researched the practices of Rhode Island farmers. She writes about food and farming in her blog, The Wheaton Tomato (wheatontomato.blogspot.com).

“When you get something at a farmers’ market, it usually has been picked that day,” says Sullam. “It’s fresher, tastier and healthier. We need to value and support local farmers, especially sustainable farms, because they are the ones who will continue to function in the long run and not destroy the earth’s health.”

Photo by Michael Graca