Five Questions for: Janet Paul Rice

Five Questions, Janet Paul Rice, Concordia CollegeThe spring planting of a campus garden at 2,800-student Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., means some local produce for dining services. More importantly, according to Janet Paul Rice, associate director of dining services, the garden will feature a prominent education component. Paul Rice talks to FSD about how both college and elementary students will have the chance to work and learn from the garden.

How did the garden get started?

The idea for a garden began with the food-working group of Concordia's sustainability task force. One of the goals suggested for the advancement of sustainability was the establishment of a campus garden. However, in interviewing other colleges, we found that the sustainability of gardens can be challenging—getting it started is easy, keeping it going can be difficult. As a result, we made our garden part of a history capstone course called "Building Sustainable Communities." The course focuses not only on food history, but also on nonprofit administration. The students enrolled in the course will more or less operate the garden as a nonprofit organization. We also thought it would be a great opportunity to invite elementary school students to harvest items from the pizza garden and then have our culinary team help create their pizzas and teach them about where food comes from. The garden provides the ultimate in local food—it is grown right on campus. It doesn't get much more local or fresh than that.

What were some of the biggest challenges involved with implementing the garden?

The biggest challenge was undoubtedly figuring out how to keep the garden self-sustaining. The food-working group didn't want to go through the work and expense of starting a garden if it was only going to fall away during the year when there were not dedicated volunteers to oversee it. Absolutely all of the credit for the idea of the capstone course, which will keep the garden going, goes to Dr. Gretchen Harvey of the history department. She is also a community garden organizer and a member of the food-working group. It was her brainchild from the beginning. This initial garden is quite small—only about 20' x 50'—so it really cannot generate enough produce to be practical in terms of providing significant amounts of food for dining services. We decided we would begin with this one plot, and hope to incorporate additional plots in various green spaces around campus. We think the potential is very good to be able to demonstrate aggressive urban gardening as a viable model for our students and the community.

What is planted in the garden?

There are a few herbs and ornamental flowers to add aesthetic value, but the bulk of the garden is dedicated to two concepts: a pizza/salsa garden and a Three Sisters garden. The pizza/salsa garden includes a variety of peppers, tomatoes and onions, all of which can be used to make either pizza or salsa, something school children will enjoy a great deal. The Three Sisters garden is a nod to the capstone course being housed in the history department. In keeping with traditional Native American methods, this section promotes the historical concept of sustainable agriculture in the form of companion planting—corn, squash or pumpkins and beans as complementary plants that benefit each other and the soil. The first priority of the garden is to support the learning process. Dining Services has agreed to buy at market prices any excess produce over and above that. We will also sell excess produce at the campus farmer's market, which is also a recent project of the food-working group.

What is involved with the educational component for the college students as well as the elementary students?

Our students will learn not only about food security and sustainability through the history component, but also valuable practical skills in nonprofit administration—not to mention even more practical skills in urban gardening. Elementary school students will have a hands-on view and experience in how plants grow and where food comes from—pizza doesn't have to come in a cardboard box. Not only can you make pizza or salsa yourself, it is very satisfying and delicious to do so. There is great potential to involve our students majoring in elementary education and food and nutrition in developing curricula and learning projects revolving around the garden.

What advice would you give to other operators about implementing a garden?

Start planning early. It takes more time than you think to lay the groundwork, so to speak. Also, make sure you build in a means for sustaining the garden, not just getting it going.