There's Now Food Where There Was Once Concrete on This Campus

On the idyllic seaside campus of UC Santa Barbara, a garden grows.
UCSB students work in the Edible Campus garden. (Photo: Courtesy UCSB Sustainability)
May 27, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When the University of California, Santa Barbara, began thinking about growing food on campus, it saw potential where others simply saw concrete.

“Hey, that corner over there. That corner could use a citrus tree,” said sustainability coordinator Katie Maynard. What the university wanted was a lush and thriving on-campus farm growing a variety of melons, apples, stone fruits, eggplant, tomatoes, parsnips, and other nutrient-dense root vegetables.

But perhaps the cause could gain steam by starting small with a three-foot square of concrete where a potted citrus tree could yield 400 pounds of fruit in a year.

College campus gardens and farms often start in a grassroots way, when enterprising members of the veggie co-op want to grow vine-ripe tomatoes to serve in their potluck dinners, for example. But the Edible Campus Program began with lofty production goals—25,000 pounds of food each year to donate to the Associated Students Food Bank.

“We started this project from day one to have a goal for distribution through our food pantry,” Maynard said. “We developed every aspect of our program to grow food and distribute it to the widest population possible.” That meant developing the initial proposals in conjunction with the school's Environmental Health and Safety office.

For the past year, the charmingly named Department of Public Worms has tended the pilot Urban Orchard Program—two potted Washington navel orange trees parked on the campus’ main plaza and funded by the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, founded by Kim and Jack Johnson to support environmental, art, and music education.

“We started thinking about our broader goals,” Maynard said. “How can we take underutilized spaces and reimagine them to grow food and directly support our students who are food insecure by providing them with fresh food grown right here on campus?”

That question was one the Edible Campus Program was determined to answer, considering one in six college students at UCSB skipped meals in 2014 because he or she couldn’t afford them. Through a collaboration with the Associated Students Food Bank and the Department of Public Worms, the program set out to connect the dots of what a “closed loop cycle” of sustainable food production on campus would look like: Food waste becomes compost becomes fresh food.

Riding carbon-free recumbent bicycles, the Worm Wranglers pick up a small portion of the 90 tons of food waste UCSB diverts from landfills each month (the majority is processed off-site by a commercial composter). Approximately 100 pounds of food waste is fed to thousands of red wriggler worms each week, explained Marli Heininger, the outreach coordinator for the Department of Public Worms. Food not suitable for vermicomposting is processed through a solar-heated hot compost system. The result is rich compost and worm castings—aka worm manure—and a “worm tea fertilizer” for use as a liquid soil amendment.

For context, here’s how committed Heininger is to the cause: It’s the Friday before finals week, and she’s telling a visitor all about it.

“In the past, we have used our compost and worm castings in our ‘experimental garden,’ where we have been testing drought-tolerant beds and permaculture bed designs, but we were unable to share produce with our peers because of health regulations outlined by the campus Environmental Health and Safety,” she explained.

The Department of Public Worms has proved its growing mettle, watering, fertilizing with worm tea, and keeping fastidious logs. Now the Edible Campus Program has the funding for more citrus trees and the proposals to show how it plans to extend production throughout campus, spreading onto balconies and other small squares of concrete with more pots and aeroponics gardens.

“Those two trees got us the support to be able to then start talking about bigger projects,” Maynard said. “Since then, we’ve just been moving full steam ahead on the student farm and are now expanding on that idea of utilizing underutilized spaces, and we’re starting to branch out into the concepts around aeroponics as well.”

The Edible Campus Program has partnerships with the Middle East Studies Program, growing produce that will support a syllabus centered on the food and culture of the region. This summer, a student is developing farm- and garden-based curricula for the campus Children’s Center.

“Over the summer we are gearing up our team and preparing the final elements for our campus farm,” said Heininger. “We can’t wait to get our seeds in the ground for this project that so many wonderful UCSB students and faculty have worked so hard to transform a dream into a reality.”